Stump the Rector: On election

Kelli writes asking how those who are not elect can be condemned on the Day of Judgment for not believing. The idea of everyone not having a chance is troubling to her.

When couched in those terms it is a troubling concept and does seem to paint God in a negative light. Allow me to offer a number of points to perhaps put the discussion in a different light.

First, we must acknowledge that God is love and that He so loved that world that He gave His only Begotten Son so that all who believe in Him would not perish but would have eternal life (Jn3:16). That is our starting point. When speaking of matters of predestination and election we are touching on some deep mysteries and there is so much that we do not know. Just like in matters of the end times, if you meet someone who says that they have it all figured out, then beware.

But we do know is God’s love for us. So while we may speculate about what happens to a person who has never heard the Gospel and how they will be received on the Day of Judgment, our beginning place is that the God who loved the world enough to send His Son to die for it can be trusted to do what is just.

Second, we must remember that He is the Potter and we are the clay (Romans 9). So while it is permissible for us to wrestle with these truths, we must never think that somehow God is accountable to us or that we deserve to understand it all. We must take large doses of humility as we seek the Truth. The Church does not speak with a unified voice on the matters of election and predestination as she does on essential truths like the Trinity and the Divinity of Christ. The debate about election vs. free will has been brewing since the days of St. Augustine and our Baptist brethren are in the midst of it even now. So while I believe the statements in the 39 Articles on Election and Freewill (X, XVII) to be masterpieces, I cling to them lightly. I think of Job when he was asking God to explain why bad things happen to good people and he concluded, “Therefore I have uttered what I do not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I do not know.” If we could wrap our minds completely around God, then He would not be God.

Third, the Scriptures say that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23). It is important to remember that the wicked are not condemned due to no fault of their own. They are condemned for their wickedness. They are not neutral beings who would like to believe but are not given an opportunity. Romans 1:18-32 shows us the true state of the wicked, even describing them as “haters of God.” So in terms of equity, the hard truth is that God would be just even if He chose to save none of us. He would have been just to have stopped the whole thing with Adam and Eve for their rebellion. Thus we can turn the question on its head, from “Why doesn’t God save everyone?” to “Why in the world does God save anyone?”

Fourth, as Anglicans we do not see mysteries in the Scriptures as problems to be solved, but rather as truths to be proclaimed. Speaking of the Trinity, St. Augustine said something to the effect that if we try to understand it we will lose our minds, but if we don’t believe it we will lose our souls.

We don’t know how it is that Mary conceived of the Holy Spirit, but we proclaim it every week in the Creed. We don’t know how it is that “whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me and I in him” but we believe it to be true and we receive Him weekly, veiled in the bread and wine (Jn 6:56). Mysteries are to be celebrated and their implications enfolded into our lives. They do not have to be fully comprehended for us to do so.

Some may call it simplistic to believe in what you do not fully understand, but we live our lives that way every day. I have no idea how electricity works but I trust it to be there every time I throw the switch. Further, treating mysteries as if they are problems to be solved leads to an unhealthy form of scholasticism that gives birth to idle speculation. Instead of trying to figure out how many angels can sit on the head a pin, our calling is to be out visiting the sick.

Fifth, we must keep the teachings of predestination and election in their intended context. They are not given to cause us to fret about ourselves or about others. They are given for our comfort for assurance. They tell us that God has loved us and called us before the foundations of the world and that He who began a good work in us will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus (Eph 1:4; Phil 1:6).

Six, these teachings are for the glory of God. I am a Christian not because I’m better or wiser than anyone else. I am a Christian because God in His love created a new heart within me, healed my blindness and put His Spirit within me. He did it, not me, so He is to be glorified. I can’t even boast about having faith because that too is a gift from God (Eph 2:8,9).

As I said earlier, these are deep mysteries, and certainly cannot be fully explained in a blog. When I find myself being a little overwhelmed by theology such as this, I remind myself of a story about the famous German theologian Karl Barth. Barth’s “Dogmatics” was his master work. It was 13 volumes and over 6 million words. After a lecture in America in 1962, during a Q&A session, a student asked him if he could summarize his life’s work in theology in one sentence. Barth said that he could. “Jesus love me this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” After exploring the depths of God, it is always a good thing to come back to that eternal truth.

3 thoughts on “Stump the Rector: On election

  1. Well put Father. This type of wrestling and resting in some of the mysteries of scripture is a challenge for our western-21st Century-conditioned minds. The Catholics explain what Kelli is asking by the concepts of vincible and invincible ignorance. Vincible ignorance is not knowing and not trying to know. This is stubborn refusal to listen, much less accept the Gospel. It is easily overcome (hence ‘vincible’) but our hearts/minds refuse. Invincible Ignorance, is ignorance not through any fault of our own. We simply had no opportunity to know Christ. We are held culpable, in this view, for what we know and/or willingly ignore, not for what we never had the chance to know. As you said, God is gracious and we trust him, in terms of anyone’s final destiny, to do what is just and right. We also trust that he sees and understands what we do not and we recognize that mercy and the blood of Christ is the only way any of us aspire to heaven’s shores. Who knows? There may be more unreached Amazon people groups in heaven than Bishops!

  2. I have been wrestling with this very question for some time and Greg and I spoke at length with one another about it a few days ago. So I am thinking then that this may be in the category of the “John on Patmos” meal, we do not know beause we cannot bear all the truths of God in these infallible bodies.

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