Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Did Jesus Die Only for a Few?

The doctrine of election has been an intensely debated and divisive question among Christians. The bible teaches that we did not choose God, but rather he chose us. Human beings, in their fallen nature, are in rebellion against God and in bondage to sin, unable to choose to follow him. Christians believe that, while we were yet enemies of God, Christ died for us (Romans 5:8). The Bible further teaches that God predestined believers to be conformed to the image of his son, Jesus Christ, so that He might be the first born among many brothers (Romans 8:29). Based on these and many other biblical passages that speak of the human inability to choose God, and God’s electing grace in Jesus Christ, many Christian theologians insist that Christ’s death was not in fact for all of humanity, but only for those whom he chose in the secret council of his wisdom before creation. This belief is often referred to as Limited Atonement. Furthermore, it is thought that God not only sovereignly elected some for salvation, he also chose some for everlasting suffering and reprobation. This view is usually referred to as Double-Predestination.

To many the God represented in these views appears cruel, arbitrary, and capricious. The teaching of Double-Predestination can also seem like a fatalistic negation of human responsibility. The doctrine of Limited Atonement and Double-Predestination are both attempts to be faithful to the biblical witness, but they represent a disastrous misunderstanding of the gospel. Far from being a negation of human responsibility, the doctrines of predestination and election, as taught by the scriptures, are actually a call to radical responsibility. Those who are elect in Christ are chosen to be the ministers of God’s grace to the whole creation. If some are ultimately lost, it is not because God has failed to be gracious to them, but because they have willfully and obstinately refused God’s grace.
God predestined before the foundation of the world to be a God for humanity. In Christ, God chose to share with us his own abundant life(Ephesians 1:4, 1 Peter 1:20). Although God is completely sufficient unto himself, he created us to share in His love as his covenant-partners. God set humanity apart from all creation as his unique image-bearers (Gen 1:26) but humanity has fallen from that original grace and become hostile to God (Rom 5:12). Although humanity in their sinful condition is worthy only of the wrath of God, he graciously promised them redemption (Gen 3:15). Humanity’s rebellion did not negate God’s sovereign choice to be their God (Gen 9). God’s promises instead became focused on one family. God called Abraham and made a covenant with him. He promised to make he and his descendents a blessing to every family on the earth (Gen 12:1-3). The descendents of Abraham, the nation of Israel—despite  being chosen by God as his very own people and the bearers of God’s blessing to the whole world—continually struggled against God. Nevertheless, God brought the Messiah, Jesus Christ, through the people of Israelites. Jesus Christ is the one through whom God’s promise of redemption was finally realized. Through the incarnation, God brought his love story for humanity to its climax. The Grace of God—God’s election of humanity as his covenant partner—was revealed once and for all in Jesus Christ.

In Christ, is God’s ‘Yes’ to humanity but also his ‘No.’ The cross of Christ was the place where humanity’s utter rebellion was exposed. The sin of all humanity was laid on Christ and he experienced the utter rejection and wrath from God that sin deserves. The cross was also the place, however, that God’s unconditional love for humanity was revealed, because there He gave his only-begotten son to die for us (John 3:16). In Jesus’ resurrection, God’s grace overcame his judgment and humanity was made new. The restoration of humanity in Christ is as universal as humanity’s ruin, “For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive” (1 Corinthians 15:22 ESV). Karl Barth sums it up in this way,

In this one man God sees every man, all of us, as through a glass. Through this medium, through this Mediator we are known and seen by God…In Him He has from eternity bound Himself to each, to all…Everything is decided about us in Him, in this one man…This One in His humiliation bears the sin, the wickedness and folly, and the misery and death of all. And the glory of this One is the glory that is intended for all.[1]

God desires all to be saved, He has chosen humanity for salvation in Jesus Christ, and each find their election in Him (1 Tim  2:3-6).  Sinful humanity receives its condemnation upon the cross, but finds it redemption and affirmation in the resurrection and ascension of Jesus. There is indeed an election to condemnation and an election to blessing, but both are focused on Christ as our representative and the one true mediator between God and man. If Christ is indeed our mediator than his death was on behalf of all and election is found only in him. Both the idea of a Limited-Atonement and the fatalistic exclusion of some from God’s blessing must be rejected.

            It  is the universality of God’s love—his desire that all be saved—that is behind his calling of some to be the bearers his blessing to the whole world. Those, to whom God has chosen to reveal himself, are entrusted with the great responsibility of making him known to every nation. Those who are called by God are elected for mission, chosen not simply to be blessed, but to be a blessing for others. God did not choose Abraham because he loved Abraham and his family more than all others, but rather God chose Abraham and his family because he desired to make them a blessing to all the families of the earth (Genesis 12:3). God chose Israel not out of a desire to forsake all other nations but in order to make them a light to the nations (Isaiah 42:6, 49:6).  According to Lesslie Newbigin,

God’s electing grace, his choosing of some to be the bearers of his salvation for all, is a matter for awe and wonder and thankfulness: it can never become the ground for making claims against God which exclude others. God does not choose to save some and to destroy others.[2]

Newbigin argues that God has not done what he might have done, fashioning some for honor and others for destruction (Romans 9:22), but rather God has consigned all to disobedience that he might have mercy on all (Romans 11:32). God remains free to act as he chooses. Throughout Israel’s history God has chosen some from within Israel herself to be the bearers of promise and some to be the signs of judgment. This typologically anticipates Christ who would bear both God’s ‘Yes’ and God’s ‘No’. It also prefigures the coexistence of Israel and the Church as the elect people of God chosen to bear respectively God’s judgment and his blessing. This does not mean that Israel is forever cast off, but rather God has hardened them for the sake of the salvation of the gentiles. God’s word of judgment is not his final word. The scriptures assure us that, “All Israel will be saved” (Romans 11:26). Paul writes to his gentile audience concerning the Jews,

As regards the gospel, they are enemies for your sake. But as regards election, they are beloved for the sake of their forefathers. For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable. For just as you were at one time disobedient to God but now have received mercy because of their disobedience, so they too have now been disobedient in order that by the mercy shown to you they also may now receive mercy. (Romans 11:28-31 ESV)

God used the Jews to bring salvation to the Gentiles and he is now using the Gentiles to bring salvation to the Jews. In the fulfillment of his purposes, God elects that some be called as his chosen means of declaring the gospel and others to be the means of declaring his judgment, but this does not bear on their ultimate salvation or reprobation. This is God’s freedom and should not be used to undermine human responsibility or the missionary character of God’s choosing. Newbigin concludes,

And while the ultimate mystery of election remains, one can see that the principle of election is the only principle congruous with the nature of God’s redemptive purpose. And we can also see that wherever the missionary character of the doctrine of election is forgotten; wherever it is forgotten that we are chosen in order to be sent; wherever the minds of believers are concerned more to probe backwards from their election into the reasons for it in the secret counsel of God than to press forwards from their election to the purpose of it, which is that they should be Christ’s ambassadors and witnesses to the ends of the earth; wherever men think that the purpose of election is their own salvation rather than the salvation of the world: then God’s people have betrayed their trust. [3]

Given the character of God’s election, as election for the sake of the other, we must reject any notion of double-predestination, which envisions God electing some simply for reprobation. Even when God hardens the hearts of some—consigning them to unbelief—it is always for the sake of his mission, and need not imply the reprobation of such persons. We must reserve judgment on the ultimate destiny of such persons to God on the last day. No one is outside the scope of God’s redemption.

            The doctrine of election described thus far would seem to suggest very strongly a Universalist understanding of salvation, the belief that all will, in the end, enjoy the felicity of the age to come. If no one is outside the scope of God’s kingdom and if God is capable of turning even rebellion towards his glory and saving purposes, there is no limit to what we can hope for, but it would not be proper adopt Universalism as a dogma. We are not permitted to insist upon such a final conclusion because to do so would be a denial of God’s freedom. We cannot ignore the fact that scripture warns us of a coming judgment and speaks very clearly about the possibility of damnation for those who obstinately reject God’s grace. It is important to note, says Newbigin, that the object of these warnings are primarily the elect who are tempted to believe that their election makes some claim upon God. He writes, “God must destroy this claim, for otherwise the sovereignty of grace will be undone.[4]  Because of the nature of election, salvation comes to us through “the other” whom God has chosen to be the bearer of blessing to us. If we wall ourselves up in hatred and contempt for God and our neighbor, if in self-righteousness we refuse to be in turn a blessing to others, we in essence repudiate our election.

            Karl Barth also spoke of damnation as a kind of impossible possibility. Disobedience, for Barth, is “the ontological impossibility of human existence,” because to be human is by its very nature to be elect of God. Damnation is then a denial of our very humanity and a drift towards non-being. To be truly human is to be in relationship with God as our covenant partner. When human beings deny God and give their heart and worship to that which is not God, they cease to reflect the image in which their election consist. N.T. Wright suggest this,
…it is possible for human beings so to continue down this road, so to refuse all whisperings of good news, all glimmers of the true light, all promptings to turn and go the other way, all signposts to the love of God, that after death they become at last, by their own effective choice, beings that once were human but now are not, creatures that have ceased to bear the divine image at all. With the death of that body in which they inhabited God’s good world, in which the flickering flame of goodness had not been completely snuffed out, they pass simultaneously not only beyond hope but also beyond pity.[5]

We must acknowledge this very tragic possibility, even as we hope and pray for the salvation of all people.

          When understood correctly, the biblical doctrine of election is neither fatalistic nor a denial of human responsibility. God does not arbitrarily condemn people to Hell, nor has He failed to be gracious. In His sovereignty, God has chosen some to be the bearers of His great blessing to all the earth, and He uses others to demonstrate His justice. God’s final word to human beings, however, is always “Yes” because God has elected to save humanity in Jesus Christ. We must remember that our election can never be a source of pride because it is a gift of grace given by God to rebellious and disobedient humanity. Our election is not a declaration of entitlement but a call to mission. God calls us out of a desire to express his love for every nation on the earth. We are blessed to be a blessing, because, “God has consigned all to disobedience, that he may have mercy on all” (Romans 11:32 ESV). The message of God’s gracious choice to be with humanity and to be their God and savior is good news indeed. Although we must acknowledge the horrible possibility that human beings can refuse God’s grace and embrace damnation, there is always reason to hope because there is a wideness in God's mercy and no one is fated for reprobation.   


          [1] Karl Barth, Dogmatics in Outline (First Edition.; Harper Perennial, 1959), 91.
            [2] The Gospel in a Pluralist Society (William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1996), 85.
          [3] L. Newbigin, The Household of God, Lectures on the Nature of the Church (SCM Press, 1953), 55.
            [4] Lesslie Newbigin, The Open Secret: An Introduction to the Theology of Mission (Revised.; Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1995), 80.
          [5] N. T. Wright, Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church (HarperOne, 2008), 182.