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Soul Sorting and Election

In my prior posts on the “soul sort narrative,” I’ve commented on what I’ve called the Chick Tract Gospel and on the theme of Justice.  I suggested in those posts that the real issue is not the fact of “sorting,” but the question of “election.”  In my mind, this is the heart of the “theodicy of soteriology” problem:  how does God decide who receives the gracious gift of salvation?

This is an enormous question, which has been debated by the great minds of the Church for over two thousand years, and which probably cannot be resolved at all, much less in a blog post.  It feels like a cop-out to relegate this question to the category of “mystery,” but ultimately I think this instinct is correct. 

Do you find the category of “mystery” helpful in response to the problem of “sorting” and “judgment?”  How do you understand the nature of God’s election in the economy of salvation?


In Biblical terms, a “mystery” is something that is now only
hinted at and that will be revealed by God in the fullness of time.  The final resolution of eschatological
time seems to fall clearly into this category.  Contrary to the Chick Tract Gospel, scripture does not spell
out in great detail the precise accounting of the final judgment.  Scripture does tell us that God will
judge our works, that all of our works ultimately fall short, and that all those
who are saved enjoy that status only because of the atoning work of
Christ.  Scripture also tells us
that repentance and faith are basic to salvation.  We are not, however, given a simple formula for “who’s in
and who’s out.”  Indeed, many of
Jesus’ parables (the Sheep and the Goats, and the Workers in the Vineyard, for
example), suggest that we should expect to be surprised at the last
judgment.  The final reckoning is
in many ways a true mystery.  At
some point our only response is to trust in God’s goodness and justice.

However, I’d like to highlight some strains of thought about
election that I’ve found less helpful as well as approaches that seem to me to
be on the right track.

I would place in the “less helpful” category what I see as
opposite extremes:  (1) the view
that “election” means only “foreknowledge” of human choices, and (2) the view
the “election” implies “double predestination.” 

The former view is an extreme form of Arminianism.  As Roger Olson points out in his
excellent book  Arminian
Theology:  Myths and Realities
,
it is not even a properly Arminian view – it is in fact a Pelagian view that
conditions salvation on human works and human will.  Scripture is clear that God’s election with respect to
salvation involves more than passive foreknowledge of human choices.  Only God saves.

The latter view is a strong form of Augustinian
Calvinism.  A number of Bible
passages – notably Romans 9:14-18 – can be enlisted in favor of this view.  In my judgment, however, this view does
not adequately account for God’s inherently just and loving character.  If God’s choices are truly just and
loving, then they are not merely arbitrary.  The God who “so loved the world that he gave his one and
only son” (John 3:16), who became man and entered into our sin and suffering on
the cross, seems a prodigious and generous lover, not the gnarled and irritable
tyrant of High Calvinism.

A third option is that offered by Karl Barth:  election refers to God’s election of all of humanity in Jesus Christ.  Barth refers to passages such as Psalm
89:3 and Luke 9:35, which refer to Jesus as the one whom God has chosen, as
well as to passages such as Romans 5, which indicates that Christ is the
archetype of the new humanity (in contrast to Adam, the archetype of the old
humanity).  Barth’s view suggests
that God has made the positive choice of election but that human beings retain
the freedom to say “no” to God by rejecting Christ.  A similar view was expressed by C.S. Lewis in his allegory The
Great Divorce
. 

Barth’s approach has often been used to support universalism,
but it does not necessarily lead to universalism.  Nevertheless, the Barthian approach (as well as Lewis’
allegory) leave ample room for “those who haven’t heard” to be saved, for it is
only those who in decision and disposition finally choose against God who will lose the benefits of salvation.

It’s tempting to present Barth’s view as a “third way”
through Pelagian, Arminian, and High Calvinist views of election.  However, Barth’s view also does not
seem to do justice to the fullness of Biblical teaching about God’s sovereignty
and election.   Scripture
seems to suggest quite strongly that God chooses a particular people in Christ.

On this question of particularity, a “missional” approach to
election seems to be emerging.  In
this view, “election” refers primarily to God’s choice of some people to engage in His mission of redeeming
all of creation.  When we reflect
on the doctrine of election, the point is not to divine “who’s in and who’s
out” in terms of final judgment. 
The final judgment is God’s prerogative alone.  What we can know
is that, having received the grace of the Gospel, we are chosen to bring the
Gospel, in all its fullness, into all of creation.  (For some hints at this approach, see Leslie Newbiggin, The
Gospel in a Pluralist Society
, and Christopher J.H. Wright, The
Mission of God
.)

We, the Church, have been elected for mission.  But
this emphatically does not mean that
those outside the visible Church are forever outside the reach of God’s grace.  Barth’s approach is helpful here:  God has already said “yes” to all of humanity in Christ.  The eschatological victory over sin,
evil and death is sealed.  In my
view — given what I know of God’s character revealed in Christ –  at the final judgment, only those who
persistently reject God’s grace will remain outside the Kingdom.  Karl Barth, C.S. Lewis, Hans Urs von
Balthasar, Leslie Newbiggin, Donald Bloesch, Dallas Willard, and the like, were
right:  it is wrong to suggest that
all people who do not (as far as we can see) have access to the Gospel in this
life are simply cast off by God.  (Whether
God’s salvation encompasses an ongoing post-mortem “harrowing of Hell,” as many
Eastern Church Fathers and contemporary Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic theologians
suggest, I do not know, though I personally suspect something like this is so.
)  Yet, as always, it is not for me
to pretend to constrain what God can or cannot do, or to pry too deeply into
His mysteries.  Judgment and
salvation belong to God alone.

Meanwhile, we who know Christ go into the world with great
hope and anticipation for the wedding feast to come, as people chosen by God
for His mission of redeeming all of creation, trusting that nothing God has
done or will do is in the slightest way unloving, unjust, unfair, or wrong, working
out our own salvation, and content to leave the mystery of final judgment to our
good and beautiful God.

What do you think
about a “missional” approach to election? 
How can we best answer the difficult question of why God’s great
salvation seems to reach so few people in this life?

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