The doctrine of election is one of the most misunderstood of Christian doctrines and one of the most contested within Christian communities. In a previous post, I debated some questions about election with Peter Ould. Since then, I have done more reading in the scriptures and more research into the classical Anglican teaching on this topic and have found that while my previous rejection of Calvinist predestination was appropriate, my understanding of the Anglican approach to election may have been deficient. Over the course of this brief series, I hope to sketch out the Anglican theology of predestination and election that comes through in the Anglican formularies and in classical Anglican teaching. For today, though, let me begin by showing why I believe the Calvinist understanding of predestination to be insufficient in regards to the teaching of holy scripture.
There are multiple Calvinist sources that could be consulted to gain a clear view of Calvinism’s approach to election, but they all tend to ground their position in Romans 9. From there, they argue for what is commonly referred to as “double predestination.” The word predestination here does not mean that God has mapped out every move we will make in our lives per se but refers only to what will happen in regards to our salvation. Before the world began, God elected or chose certain people whom He would create to be saved and others whom He would create to be damned. All of us would deserve to be damned through our own choice to sin, but some would be saved by grace through Christ’s work on the cross. Thus, Jesus Christ did not die for all, but merely for the elect. For an elementary explanation of this position set to an unbelievably bad hip hop track, click here.
The only way to use Romans 9 as a proof text for double predestination is if it is ripped out of the context of the rest of Romans and the rest of scripture. There are many places in the Bible where God’s election is discussed. Almost all of them point to an election that is gracious and motivated by mercy, not by some sort of arbitrary choice. In Ezekiel 18:23-24, the Lord says, “Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked, declares the Lord GOD, and not rather that he should turn from his way and live? But when a righteous person turns away from his righteousness and does injustice and does the same abominations that the wicked person does, shall he live? None of the righteous deeds that he has done shall be remembered; for the treachery of which he is guilty and the sin he has committed, for them he shall die.” This hardly seems indicative of a God who chose those who would be eternally damned before the world began for the sake of proving His own sovereignty to…er…Himself. Similarly, John 3:16 and its famous proclamation that “God so loved the world” makes no sense if the world is only the elect. Finally, Paul himself says in 1 Corinthians 15:22, “For as all die in Adam, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.” Similarly, in 1 Timothy 2:4 he says, God “desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” And in 2 Timothy 2, Paul speaks of God’s election in terms of our continuing in faith or choosing to fall away. There is no once saved always saved, no once damned always damned.
Romans is an incredibly beautiful account of the way in which we are saved by Christ’s offering of Himself for all of us. And Paul is clear that this gift is for all of us. He calls on the Church in Rome to preach the Gospel to “all the world” (1:8). And that Gospel is that “as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men” (5:18). Justification comes from Christ for all, just as wrath is for all without Christ since all have sinned (2:12, 3:12, and just about everywhere else).
Though the word “elect” is not used there, the most specific teaching about election in Romans is what is found in chapter 6 where Paul speaks about Baptism as the means by which we receive this grace that Christ has won for us on the cross. We have been baptized into Christ’s death, which means that we will be raised with Him in resurrection (6:3-11). There is nothing symbolic about this. It is what Baptism actually does. As it says in the 1979 BCP Baptismal liturgy, Baptism “marks us as Christ’s own forever.” We receive our election in Baptism. If that is true, how then can there be some who receive their condemnation prior to birth and without any reference to human sin?
We are marked as Christ’s own forever in Baptism, elected by grace, through God’s choice and not our own, and yet we can lose that election through making the choice to reject faith. What election tells us is that saying yes to God is not a choice that we can make and thus not something we can boast about. The choice for us to say yes is entirely God’s. And yet, the choice to say no is entirely ours. That is the mystery that Calvinism attempts to tie up in a neat little package by proclaiming God the one who decides both yes and no, making the God of grace into a God of arbitrary cruelty.
Now, Romans does speak directly about election in chapter 9, but it does so also in chapter 11. And in the context of Romans 11, election is spoken of with regards to the people of Israel, whom God has chosen, but some of whom will not inherit salvation—at least not until God’s work is done—because they have refused to believe. Thus, the gentile believers are grafted onto the tree, but they may not boast because it is the root of that tree—the Jews—that supports their branch which God has grafted on. “They were broken off because of their unbelief, but you stand fast through faith. So do not become proud, but fear. For if God did not spare the natural branches, neither will he spare you. Note then the kindness and the severity of God: severity toward those who have fallen, but God’s kindness to you, provided you continue in his kindness. Otherwise you too will be cut off. And even they, if they do not continue in their unbelief, will be grafted in, for God has the power to graft them in again” (11:20-23). This passage makes it clear that what leads to our salvation is not arbitrary. We receive the gift that God gives us through faith and faith alone. Israel’s election was tossed aside by Israel’s lack of faith. The Gentiles received the fruits of election by receiving the Gospel in faith. And if the faith reverses, so will the gifts. That’s what Romans teaches.
So, with all that in mind, how can we understand Romans 9? What Calvinists contend is that double predestination is implied in this whole chapter but especially in verses 22 and 23, which say “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…” But in order to understand these verses, we have to take a step back and look at the examples that Paul gives that lead him to ask this question. Paul is arguing for the sovereignty of God, one of Calvin’s favorite subjects, and Paul demonstrates through examples from scripture how God is able, in His sovereignty over all creation, to draw forth good from evil, even in spite of the evil of mankind. Paul’s two examples are the divergent paths of Jacob and Esau and the hardening of Pharoah’s heart in the days when Moses was leading Israel out of slavery in Egypt. In both cases, what God does is not to choose someone for destruction but to harden the hearts of those who have already rejected Him in order to crush them completely, to crush their willful hearts and rebellious spirits, out of which they might still be saved. In Pharoah’s case, the hardening of his heart that is done by God happens only after he has hardened his own heart multiple times (Exodus 7:13-14, 7:22-23, 8:15, 8:19, 8:32, 9:7). The Lord says that He will harden Pharoah’s heart in 7:3 but the first time He actually does it is at 9:12. Even after that, there are moments at which Pharoah hardens his own heart, implying that the Lord has given him another chance which he has chosen to reject (9:34-35). This can hardly be said to be an example of God choosing before all time to damn Pharaoh. If anything, this shows God’s great love for Pharoah and the lengths that God was willing to go to in order to see Pharoah saved.
But then, what about Jacob and Esau? As Romans 9:13 puts it, “Jacob I loved, Esau I hated.” Clearly this is an indication of double predestination, right? God chooses Jacob and condemns Esau. He saves the one and lets go of the other, without any sort of reasoning. Except, He does have a reason. Esau sins in Genesis 25 by giving up his birthright to his brother in order to follow the desire of his belly. In that famous King James phrase, he sells his birthright “for a mess of pottage.” In verse 34, it says that Esau “despised his birthright.” Jacob will go on to commit his own sins, of course, the most notorious being his tricking of his father into giving Jacob his blessing (Genesis 27:1-40). Nevertheless, Jacob’s faith remains strong and thus his sins are forgiven. And it is worth adding that there is no indication anywhere in scripture that Esau is beyond redemption. While God hated Esau in the moment of Esau’s great sin and lack of faith, it is entirely possible that Esau went on to have faith and be redeemed. A glimpse of this possibility can be seen in Genesis 32 and 33 when Jacob and Esau are reunited and Esau weeps and embraces his brother despite his brother’s earlier treachery against him. Did God hate Esau at that moment? Was he still damned for all eternity then?
Since it seems unlikely that either of these examples is meant to show us a permanent and arbitrary decision by God before time to damn anyone, the words about “vessels of wrath” and “vessels of glory” in Romans 9 require an alternate explanation. The most fitting one, given all that scripture says about the fate of the fallen world, is that the vessels of wrath marked for destruction are all of us since we all have sinned and all are destined for death, as Romans point out repeatedly. God endures the vessels of wrath in the present time for the sake of those vessels of glory whom He will rescue from the fire, those vessels being His elect who have believed His Word when it was preached to them and received His grace through Baptism. That is what Romans 9 means in its biblical context. There is not a whiff here of double predestination, not even a little bit.
The purpose of the doctrine of election is not to scare us and make us wonder whether God chose us for the one place or the other. It is to reassure us of God’s unfailing love for us and that if we have faith in the promises of God that He will deliver. In the next section, we will see how that understanding of the doctrine is reflected in classical Anglican teaching.