A Plug for My Current Article on “Election” in Christianity Today
by Roger Olson
January 8, 2013
If you are able to, please read my article “Election Is for Everyone” in the current issue of Christianity Today and post your feedback here. There I call for Christians to emphasize more our common ground and less our differences. We all agree that salvation is solely God’s doing and not of works. We all believe in election and predestination. Reformed theology does not have a monopoly on these good biblical concepts. Obviously, we interpret them differently, but both Calvinists and Arminians (and Lutherans and Anabaptists) believe that God elects people. We do not elect ourselves. Please don’t respond to this abstract; read the article and respond to it (if you are able).
*all [bracketed] comments are mine own - R.E. Slater (res)
Election Is for Everyone
by Roger Olson
February 5, 2013
However we interpret the controversial doctrine, it's clear
that salvation is never a human achievement.
When I was a kid my brother and I would sometimes spend part of Saturday handing out gospel tracts in our neighborhood. We were pastor's sons and probably felt some obligation to do it (as it was something promoted in Sunday school and youth group), but I can honestly say we also felt it was our contribution to the kingdom of God.
One of our favorite tracts pictured a voting ballot. The great preacher Herschel Hobbs, known among Southern Baptists as "Mr. Baptist," preached a famous sermon based on that tract on The Baptist Hour in October 1967. His sermon was "God's Election Day," and its main point was:
"The devil and God held an election to determine whether or not you would be saved or lost. The devil voted against you and God voted for you. So the vote was a tie. It is up to you to cast the deciding vote."
Without doubt that concept of the doctrine of election has become popular among Christians. After all, we Americans prize our right and freedom to vote. But is that what Scripture means by election? Is the gospel that God votes for our salvation, Satan votes against it, and we—individually, freely—cast the vote that decides our eternal destiny?
Probably not. Some biblical scholars and theologians would say, "Definitely not!" It does seem to trivialize the concept of election and especially God's sovereignty in our salvation. On the other hand, there may be some truth in this way of conceiving the issue, even if it does not do justice to the profundity of the biblical doctrine of election.
Unfortunately, the "doctrine of election" has come to be associated especially, even uniquely, with one particular branch of Christian theology—the one people know as "Reformed." It descends from the Swiss Reformation of the 16th century and most notably from the French reformer John Calvin, who lived in and spiritually led the Swiss city Geneva. Too often, "election" is identified as the distinctive doctrine of Calvinism—as if no other branch of Christianity believes in it.
In fact, it would be impossible to be a Bible-believing Christian without affirming God's electing grace and having a doctrine of election. The same could be said about predestination, often thought of as a synonym for election. The Bible is filled with references to God's choice of people, both individuals and groups. Abraham was not just "called" by God but also "chosen" or "elected" to be the father of God's "chosen people," God's elect nation of Israel (Gen. 12:1-3; Isa. 45:4). The church is the elect of God, chosen for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ (Eph. 1:5). Paul was clearly chosen by God for apostleship (Acts 9).
It would be no stretch of truth to say that God's election of people is central to the biblical message, to the gospel. And it can safely be said that people's election is God's grace, not human achievement. Nowhere does the Bible even hint that people elect themselves.
'Touched by an Angel' Theology
That brings us back to the gospel tract and Hobbs's sermon. All Christians, not only Calvinists, ought to reject the underlying message that election is a human act or achievement. Theologians have a term for that belief: semi-Pelagianism. It is arguably the default view of both salvation and service among American Christians, especially younger Christians. But all branches of Christianity have condemned it as heresy, because it completely contradicts Scripture.
[The unbiblical idea of] Semi-Pelagianism is the idea that human beings take the initiative in their salvation and service to God. We decide whether to be saved or enter into God's service completely by ourselves, without prevenient (or necessary) grace. (Prevenient grace is grace that convicts, calls, illumines, and enables. Christian theologians disagree about whether it is resistible [(Arminianism)] or irresistible [(Calvinism)], but all evangelical theologians agree it is necessary for the first exercise of a good will toward God.) Some years ago, a popular television series featured angels in human disguise helping people in distress turn to God. In one episode, a beautiful young angel with a Scottish accent counseled a man to "reach up to God as far as you can, and then he'll reach down and take you the rest of the way." I call that "Touched by an Angel theology." By itself, without careful biblical and theological clarification, it expresses semi-Pelagianism, [that is, personal self-election].
Contrary to what many think, both Calvinist and Arminian traditions of Protestant Christianity have always emphasized God's initiative in salvation and service. (Arminianism is the theological tradition named after Jacob Arminius, a 17th-century Dutch theologian who affirmed human free will.) That is, if any person or group finds reconciliation with God and/or a role in God's mission, it is due to God's electing grace and not to human decision or achievement alone.
Unfortunately, the doctrine of election has become a battleground among evangelical Protestants. Three main viewpoints vie for attention and belief. All three appeal to Scripture. All three claim the other two fall short of biblical and theological correctness. Occasionally advocates of the three views fall into nasty verbal combat with each other. Advocates of all three need to realize they share much in common, specifically belief in the divine initiative—that God is the electing one, the one whose grace is necessary to every good thing a person does, including the first movement of the will toward God.
The first view is classical, traditional Calvinism. It was not invented by Calvin but came to be associated with his name in English lands through the Puritans. Earlier reformers Martin Luther and Ulrich Zwingli held much the same belief about election.
According to Calvin, election, which is the same as predestination and foreordination, refers to "God's eternal decree, by which he compacted with himself what he willed to become of each man …. [E]ternal life is foreordained for some, eternal damnation for others" (Institutes of the Christian Religion III.XXI.5). Many people refer to this as "double predestination." Calvin based it on Romans 9 and other passages that emphasize God's sovereignty in everything, including each individual's eternal destiny.
The second view is classical, traditional Arminianism. It is named after the theologian Jacob Arminius, but the basic outlines of the view predate him. Perhaps the most influential Arminian was John Wesley, founder of the Methodist tradition, who is also revered by Christians in the holiness and Pentecostal traditions.
According to Wesley's essay "On Predestination," faithfully following Arminius, election (pre-destination) means that "God foreknew those in every nation, who would believe, from the beginning of the world to the consummation of all things." He based this on Romans 8, especially verses 29 and 30. Like all Arminians (and many who do not use that label but agree with its essential doctrine of election), Wesley affirmed free will, enabled by [prevenient] grace, because otherwise, "[I]f man were not free, he could not be accountable either for his thoughts, words, or actions."
Mountains of Verses
Most contemporary evangelical Christians lean one way or the other—toward either Calvin's or Wesley's view of election. All agree that God elects people to service; all agree that God chooses (through corporate election) to have a people. The flashpoint of controversy is election to salvation - is it unconditional and irresistible, or does it depend on one's willingness to accept it?
The divide is over individual salvation and especially whether God predestines some people to hell. Arminians find that abhorrent and damaging to God's reputation, based on passages such as John 3:16, 2 Peter 3:9, and 1 Timothy 2:4. Calvinists argue that allowing humans to resist and thwart God's will limits God's sovereignty and, however unintentionally, diminishes his deity. If sinners can freely contribute to their own salvation, then grace is not the only factor.
Both sides in this debate can pile up mountains of verses and arguments to support their view. It seems doubtful that equally God-fearing, Bible-believing, Jesus-loving Christians will ever reach consensus about the matter. But consensus already exists in this: whatever role humans play in their salvation, salvation is God's work. Even Arminians, at their best and truest, believe sinners receive saving grace only because God enables them to receive it with the free response of faith.
All evangelicals agree that salvation is God's work and not ours. Our good works, even our free decisions or signs of grace, amount to nothing when compared with God's electing grace and power.
A third view appears among contemporary evangelical Christians. Whether it leans closer to the classical Calvinist or Arminian doctrine of election is much debated. So-called "evangelical Calvinism" is championed by followers of Scottish theologians Thomas and James Torrance. They, in turn, were influenced by Swiss theologian Karl Barth and, before Barth, by Scottish theologians John McLeod Campbell and P. T. Forsyth. This view has recently been spelled out and defended by 12 leading evangelical theologians in Evangelical Calvinism: Essays Resourcing the Continuing Reformation of the Church.
According to evangelical Calvinism (something of a misnomer, as all Calvinists consider themselves evangelical in some sense), Christ must be central to election as both its object and its subject. God elects Jesus Christ to be the Savior, and then elects people only "in him." In Jesus and his cross, God has said, "Yes!" to all people; there is no corresponding divine "No!" If anyone has been elected to salvation, it is because God first elected Jesus Christ and then, by grace, included sinners in that election. If anyone rejects their inclusion in Christ's election, it is solely because of their inexplicable rejection of the grace God extended to them in Jesus Christ.
The editors of Evangelical Calvinism affirm that "[A]ll are included in Christ's salvific work, and … salvation is by grace alone and Christ alone." Election to salvation is good news, because it is not dependent on the frail and faltering free will of sinners, and no one is excluded except those who willfully exclude themselves [in Christ].
Classical Calvinists and Arminians agree with much in evangelical Calvinism, but both find it inconsistent at certain crucial points. Their main common complaint is that it falls into contradiction. How, they ask, can one affirm the universality of electing grace and deny free will with regard to being elected [Arminianism], while also affirming free will to reject the truth of one's election [Calvinism]? Evangelical Calvinists, on the other hand, find both alternative views of election problematic in that each, in its own way, seems to impugn the goodness of God's character.
Evangelical books about the doctrine of election abound. Unfortunately, most of them are polemical—spending more time arguing against another view than underscoring and explaining common ground. Especially in the past two to three decades, the doctrine of election has become a cause of division more than of unity among evangelicals. More attention needs to be given to areas of broad and profound agreement, and less to areas of diversity. Evangelical Christians, at their best, share a common doctrine of election. The devil is in the details, especially when they become points of polemical accusation and opportunities for charges of heresy or biblical infidelity.
All evangelicals agree that salvation is God's work and not ours. Our good works, even our free decisions or signs of grace, amount to nothing when compared with God's electing grace and power.... They're like the deceptive pillars English architect Christopher Wren installed to reassure the city fathers who doubted his scheme for supporting the second floor of Windsor's town hall. Wren had in fact left space between the pillars' tops and the ceiling of the first story. But the space was so miniscule as to be invisible, and it wasn't until years later, when workmen built scaffolds to clean the ceiling, that the ruse was discovered. The pillars, which had seemed so important to the architectural design, were revealed (like our outwardly impressive good works) as meaningless.
'God Will Find a Way'
If a sinner comes to Christ and receives salvation, all evangelicals agree, it is due to God's electing grace and not at all due to any meritorious work. They also agree that God is sovereign in salvation; election is one biblical way of expressing that sovereignty. The whole of Ephesians 1 extols God's sovereign election of his people. There, as elsewhere, however, it is possible to interpret election corporately [as well as it should be, esp. in Ephesians! - res]. All evangelicals agree that God's election of a people, Israel and the church, is unconditional. God chooses to have a people for his name and for his glory. He chooses to have a people on whom to lavish his love. He chooses to have a people to be a light to the nations and a testimony of God's greatness and goodness to the spiritual beings that populate the invisible world.
Evangelicals can and do disagree about whether individuals' inclusion in God's elect people involves any level of free will, but all agree that the existence of the people of God is not dependent on human choice. As a famous line from Jurassic Park says, "Life finds a way." Evangelical faith of all types and tribes agrees that "God will find a way" to have a people for his name.
Calvinists, Arminians, and evangelical Calvinists tend to find each other's positions inconsistent. But inconsistency is not heresy. Perhaps evangelicals divided over the details of the doctrine of election could rally around a prayer. The great English Baptist preacher Charles Spurgeon, saved in a Methodist church but a passionate Calvinist, frequently prayed a seemingly inconsistent prayer at his church's evening prayer meetings: "God, call out your elect. And then elect some more." Evangelicals of varying opinions may cringe at the apparent contradiction, but all can rejoice at the spirit of generosity and hope that pervaded Spurgeon's appeal.
*Roger Olson is professor of theology at Baylor University's George W. Truett Theological Seminary, and the author, most recently, of Against Calvinism (Zondervan).
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Luther and “Double Predestination”
by Roger Olson
April 10, 2013
So, my article on “election” was published in Christianity Today’s January/February issue (2013). Predictably, a letter responding was published in the current issue of CT (April). The letter writers (a Lutheran pastor in Iowa) takes issue with my claim that Martin Luther held a view of election similar to that of the Reformed theologians Zwingli and Calvin. The writer says (“The Way to Election,” pp. 55-56) that Luther did not believe in “double predestination” He describes my claim as “a serious mischaracterization” and argues that Luther “rejected the idea of God’s electing to condemnation.”
So, to refresh my memory, I have been reading Luther and Luther scholars for the last few days. Here is one article available on line that presents a persuasive argument that Luther did believe in double predestination: http://www.contra-mundum.org/essays/mattson/Luther-predestination.pdf. Here, as elsewhere on line, the following statement is attributed to Luther (and the sole source cited is Lorraine Boettner who doesn’t cite “chapter or verse” in Luther’s Commentary on Romans):
“All things whatever arise from, and depend on, the divine appointment; whereby
it was foreordained who should receive the word of life, and who should disbelieve
it; who should be delivered from their sins and who should be hardened in them;
and who should be justified and who should be condemned.”
So, yesterday I read through Luther’s Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans (trans., J. Theodore Mueller, Zondervan, 1954). I did not find that quote there. However, the volume lacks the all important Preface (!) so I read that at CCEL.org. Here is a statement I found there:
“St. Paul teaches us about the eternal providence of God. It is the original source which
determines who would believe and who wouldn’t, who can be set free from sin sin and who
cannot. Such matters have been taken out of our hands and are put into God’s hand….”
(This may be found in the Preface where Luther is previewing Romans 9.)
However, in the main body of the Commentary Luther, in the chapter on chapter 8 and on page 115 of the volume cited above, Luther writes thus about predestination:
“A fourth objection [to the doctrine of election as Luther believes it is taught in Romans]
is this: God hardens the will of man so that he desires to transgress the divine Law all the
more. Hence, God is the cause of why men sin and are condemned. This is the strongest and
most weighty objection. But the Apostle meets it by saying that so it is God’s will, and that if
God so wills He does not act unjustly, for all things belong to Him as the clay belongs to the
potter. He thus establishes His law in order that the elect may obey it, but the reprobates may
may be caught in it, and so He may show both His wrath and His mercy.”
Now, of course, someone (perhaps the letter writer) may argue that this was written in 1515 and therefore hardly represents the mature Luther’s thinking about the matter. Well, neither I nor the letter writer said anything about WHEN Luther believed in or didn’t believe in double predestination. In "Table Talk," Luther virtually forbids any discussion of predestination because it leads into all kinds of speculation and fear. So the issue is not WHEN Luther believed or did not believe in double predestination but whether Luther EVER believed in it.
Here is a quote from Alister McGrath: “Luther explicitly teaches a doctrine of double predestination….” (Iustitia Dei, Second Ed., p. 203)
I own this marvelous book entitled "What Luther Says" (Concordia Press, 1959). It contains pages of quotes from Luther about election. None of them explicitly express double predestination, but the editors (two Lutheran theologians) include a footnote that says “Luther had not always spoken like this. [viz., that there is no explanation for why God does not save everyone when he obviously could] While lecturing on Romans in 1515-1516, he was still teaching particular grace and predestinated reprobation…and his earlier lectures on the Psalms, 1513-1515, reveal the same point of view….” (p. 455)
Finally, I come to Luther’s debate with Erasmus in "The Bondage of the Will." I don’t see how anyone can read this c.1525 essay and not come away thinking Luther believed in “single predestination” rather than double predestination. Here Luther distinguishes between two aspects of God–God “hidden” and God “revealed.” It is imperative to pay attention to this distinction when talking about what Luther believed God does and does not will and do. It is part of God’s revealed will (“God revealed”) that all be saved. (All references here are to the following edition: Luther and Erasmus: Free Will and Salvation [The Library of Christian Classics] eds. Rupp, Marlow, Watson, Drewery [Westminster Press, 1969].)
But the “hidden God” wills and works everything. Commenting on Ezekiel 33:11 (which Erasmus used to argue that God does not will the condemnation of anyone) Luther writes that “It is this that God as he is preached is concerned with, namely, that sin and death should be taken away and we should be saved. … But God hidden in his majesty neither deplores nor takes away death, but works life, death, and all in all. … God does many things that he does not disclose to us in his word; he also wills many things which he does not disclose himself as willing in his word. Thus he does not will the death of a sinner, according to his word; but he wills it according to that inscrutable will of his. It is our business, however, to pay attention to the word and leave that inscrutable will alone….” (p. 201) (Lest anyone quibble here, the context makes clear that by “death” in this passage Luther is referring to eternal death, condemnation, hell.)
Later Luther writes about why God does not change the wills of wicked people when he could. “It therefore remains for someone to ask why God does not cease from the very motion of omnipotence by which the will of the ungodly is moved to go on being evil and becoming worse. … Why does he not…change the evil wills that he moves?” (p. 236) Here is one place where Luther’s nominalism/voluntarism pops out: “He is God, and for his will there is no cause or reason….” (p. 236)
Throughout the essay Luther ridicules and blasts belief in free will. And he makes abundantly clear that everything that happens, no exceptions, are willed and brought about by the hidden God–even evil. HOWEVER, people can argue that Luther did NOT believe God foreordains evil or sin or condemnation BECAUSE (although they rarely mention this) Luther DID deny that to “God revealed.” At least some of the time, and certainly in his response to Erasmus, Luther viewed God as Janus-like–with two “faces.”
So, it seems right to me to say that, for Luther, when speaking about God hidden in his majesty, God the all-determining reality, nothing escapes God’s foreordaining will and power–including reprobation. When people who know Luther well claim that he did NOT believe in double predestination, they MUST be talking about Luther’s “God revealed in his word.”
When I say that Luther believed in double predestination I mean (!) he believed God hidden in his majesty, the deus absconditus, foreordains and brings about (even if only indirectly through withdrawing his preserving grace) every sin and evil will and act of every creature including the reprobates’ condemnation.
Admittedly, later in his career, Luther shied away from this and stopped talking in that way and came close to forbidding “speculation” about predestination.
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