I know that some of you will have no idea what I am talking about, and others will shake their heads, but I want to say a few things anyway. I struggle this morning to find a way to share these thoughts that does not alienate people immediately. It is so hard because the division is so evident, the chasm so deep, the line so decisive.
The issue of God’s election is, understandably, emotionally charged. For so many it hurts to talk about and consideration means that you walk into that dark place of confusion, doubt, and, more than anything, disillusionment with God.
Election. What do I want to say about it this morning? I better get it out or my preamble will swallow my thesis and steal its thunder (if it has any). But here it is:
Election. I have been reading much about it lately, again, especially with regard to Romans 9. Does this chapter teach that God elects some to salvation and not others? I believe it does. I have since I went through the black hole of disillusionment when I was 21. I did not want to believe it when I first considered it. I hated this passage. Romans 9 . . . Grrrr. I wanted to tear it out of my Bible. I’m not alone here. Just about everyone reacts the same way. Why not? I mean, if you have compassion for others, know others who do not love God, and want the whole world to have the same opportunity to be saved, who wouldn’t find this passage detestable? I was torn, broken, sad, confused, in a panic, and downright angry when all those frightful verses entered my mind. I could never unsee it, even though I wanted to. I remember exactly where I was. It is as memorable as the fall of the Twin Towers. I was in the hallway at my mother’s house in 1993. Mom asked me to read Romans 9. She wanted to see how I would handle it. She wanted me to enter a crisis of faith. I could tell. Thanks mom!
No one is born a Calvinist. In other words, no one is born believing that God must have elected some to salvation and not others. There is nothing in creation or natural theology that would suggest such a backwards doctrine as this. If it is true, this intel has to come directly from God. Otherwise, it just seems like God loves everyone, He cheers for them from heaven, and tries to influence them here and there (although, not too persuasively). They ultimately choose whether they will trust in Him. That is the way we are born. We are born Arminian. We have to go through radical spiritual reconstruction to become a Calvinist and believe in “unconditional individual election” (as we call it today). And to be frank, as I have wrestled with dozens of alternative explanations over the years (some are very creative—mine was!), and have looked deeply into the most popular alternative (corporate election) again over the last few days, I have come to the same conclusion that I have always held: Those who reject the Calvinist understanding of individual election do so only because it scares them. I am sorry, but it does. It scares the hell out of them. It did me. I get it. I understand. The bridge that one has to cross to get where I am feels as if it will fall apart and cause your faith to atrophy to death within moments.
When people don’t cross this bridge, I don’t blame them. Sure, there is no biblical warrant. Was that too strong? Let’s put it this way: I don’t believe they have any biblical warrant. Just because you say Romans 9 is about God’s election of a corporate group (i.e. the Church, Christ, or “all those who believe”) and you have a bunch of people who jump on your train doesn’t change what I believe they know—deep down inside—they really know: this passage teaches that God elects some and not others. You know that corporate election is empty. And God is not on the Arminian side here. Again, I understand why you cannot follow. Your emotions won’t let you. The Scriptures are against you here. Your exegesis is insecure and sloppy at key turns. There is no way to be truly faithful to what God says in Romans 9 and not cross that terrifying and unnatural bridge called unconditional individual election.
I suppose I want to give you message as one who is on the other side of the bridge, who understands and deeply empathizes with your struggle, and will love you whether you cross it or not.
Here is the message: It is wonderful over here. The waves of despair dissipate after a time of walking on water. Once you grab the hand of Jesus, you are there. How do I describe it? Do I suddenly understand unconditional election? No. Not at all. Am I suddenly happy that there are reprobates who are destined to hell? So far from it. Am I swelling with pride because I am elect? me genoito! May it never be. I know that there are a lot of asses over here on this side of the bridge and I cannot defend that. But I can tell you that you find a very unique and intimate peace.
It kinda goes like this: God asks you to trust Him in something so tremendous. He holds his hand out and says, “I got this. I love everyone. I will take care of them. Leave it to Me. You just trust Me.” It feels as if God revealed unconditional election to us to give us the opportunity to do something very hard. We get to walk across that bridge. We get to step out of the boat on a shifting sea. He doesn’t give us the answers. He gives us two pieces of the puzzle. One is called “I love everyone.” The other is called “I only elect some.” We can either continue to struggle to reinterpret one or the other of these two pieces, attempting to reshape them and force them to an unnatural and, ultimately, ugly fit, or we can just accept that we have both these pieces and we simply don’t know how they fit. But we know that God does. And that is enough for us.
Settle yourself. Say to yourself, “As hard as it is, I am just going to trust God and believe He knows what He is doing.” He loves everyone and He only chose some. This is true. When you learn to trust God with these two pieces of the puzzle in your pocket, you have done something extraordinary and, in some sense, passed a very difficult test that God has given you.
Cross this bridge. Take the puzzle pieces and don’t change them. Step out into the water.
It was 4 a.m. when I started writing this. I was immersed in Tom Screiner’s defense of individual election over at Monergism. I began to think about the comfort I felt while reading. A very specific comfort that came from sharing Screiner’s belief. There was no anxiety about the lost. I trust the Lord and hope for opportunities. But the comfort that I feel—the very personal touch that the doctrine of election has on you—there is just such an unimaginable safety here. The peace that passes understanding (damn you, cliche!) (damn you, for calling Scripture cliche!). When I was young, we played neighborhood football all the time. I was always the last to be chosen. I remember the feeling. I remember it the first time. And I remember it, after it happened fifty times. I settled into being that guy—the one nobody wanted. But here I am. I am the one God picked. I know you are not comfortable with the way I am talking, but just humor me. I don’t know why He picked me. I can’t say that it was because I was good for the team. I had no spiritual attributes at all that drew God to me. But in His secret will—a will that has hidden reasons, but they have nothing to do with our merit—He made me His. I don’t struggle with this. I don’t turn it into a theological paradox, and set it before God, and then refuse to experience its benefits. I feel like a child. I don’t know why I was picked. I don’t know why others are not. But that is not on my shoulders, neither to figure out nor binge in sadness over. I look to God and everything disappears but me and Him. He says, “I love you. I saved you.” I say, “Why?” He says, “Don’t worry about it. Just know that I do.”
My friend, He is calling on you to rest in the fact that you were picked, chosen, elect. He will take care of the rest. But let me assure you that where I am is a place that you need to be. Not to be right or even theologically correct, but to truly rest. There is such a great rest over here. I am not up for a theological debate here. I am just calling on you to come and rest in a different way. If you don’t, I understand. But the water is warm. We will leave a place for you.
C. Michael Patton is the primary contributor to the Parchment and Pen/Credo House Blog. He has been in ministry for nearly twenty years as a pastor, author, speaker, and blogger.
Th.M. Dallas Theological Seminary (2001), president of Credo House Ministries and Credo Courses, author of Now that I’m a Christian (Crossway, 2014) Increase My Faith (Credo House, 2011), and The Theology Program (Reclaiming the Mind Ministries, 2001-2006), host of Theology Unplugged, and primary blogger here at Parchment and Pen. But, most importantly, husband to a beautiful wife and father to four awesome children. Michael is available for speaking engagements. He can be contacted at [email protected]