The Election is Wonderfully Good News

“That God Elects Man; that God is for Man too the One who Loves in Freedom”

Ian Olson / 11.19.20

I don’t know if you heard, but there was an election this year. That might or might not have been good news. But there’s another election that’s even better news — the best news — and it has nothing to do with paper ballots, hanging chads, exit polling, majority rule, or the Reformed dudebros you’re tired of hearing.

The version of election a large segment of Christians extol is capricious and as such paints a picture of God that is frightening: that he willy-nilly opts for this person instead of that one, that utterly apart from anything done by any person some of them are just locked in for paradise and most have weeping and gnashing of teeth to look forward to because … because. I need a God who can overrule my hardness of heart and accomplish my salvation without waiting for my signature on the contract, absolutely, but I can see why William Cowper, though an earnest believer, could be tormented across his adult life wondering if, in spite of his faith, he was already placed in the reprobate column before the foundation of the world, making whatever he did futile.

To hear the word “election” as the good news it really is, we have to turn to the Bad Boy of Modern Protestantism himself, Karl Barth. Barth is renowned for his many insights into the God of the gospel and for his witness to that God in the face of a tyranny which hijacked the language of the gospel. But the accomplishment most relevant to our concerns is his reformulation of the doctrine of election. Barth writes in §32 of the Church Dogmatics that,

The doctrine of election is the sum of the gospel because of all words that can be said or heard it is the best: that God elects man; that God is for man too the One who loves in freedom. It is grounded in the knowledge of Jesus Christ because he is both the electing God and the elected man in one.

Barth explains in this section that election is good news because it is determinative not of some portion of humanity but for humankind as a whole. The destiny of the human race is to enjoy fellowship with its creator. Humankind was created to enjoy this fellowship, and this ultimate destiny is written into the story of the universe. 

But it gets better. Election is revelatory because it is determinative of God: Barth’s reworking of this doctrine locates it in the doctrine of God, meaning that before it says anything about the human race, election says something about God. Barth goes on: “God’s election of man is a predestination not merely of man but of himself. Its function is to bear basic testimony to eternal, free, and unchanging grace as the beginning of all the ways and works of God.”

This bids us change the way we think about God. He’s not to be imagined as some objectively disinterested being considering whether or not he loves the human race and will come to their rescue. God is who he is, and election is the once and for all declaration which makes his identity an object of knowledge rather than hazy, fearful speculation.

God elects to be God-with-us, meaning that choice isn’t something that can be subtracted from God and leave him essentially unchanged: to undo that decision is to change who God is. Election is basic to God’s identity. It clears away all the fog of obscurity surrounding the concept “God.” The fearful prospect of unseen, hidden motives and decrees is illuminated and dissipated by the light of Jesus Christ coming to save the world (1 Jn 4:14).

Election is God’s primordial choice which tempers every subsequent choice of his: because he is the God who will not be himself without us, it impacts everything that follows. Creation unfolds the way it does because God will take the stage as one of us, to defeat the powers which would annul our destiny and to confer on us membership in the covenant of grace. It determines the arena in which grace will operate, setting limits upon Sin and Death and establishing the channels through which that grace will operate. 

God reveals that being God means taking this course, means holding fast to his image-bearers in spite of their failures and their rebellion. In God’s election to represent humanity in Jesus Christ he enacts and secures the destiny we could not and cannot secure for ourselves. He doesn’t rig his election and hoard the benefits and privileges of his office — he incorporates us into himself, sharing all he has and is, all without debasing himself as a demagogue or influencer.

There is a glib way to acknowledge the primordial cruciality of God’s determination to be for us in Christ, which claims that nothing else is of importance. But this overlooks the purpose of God’s election: to rescue and restore humanity to the destiny for which they were created. Which can only ever mean discontent with the present order of things, hungering and thirsting after righteousness, testifying to the hope to which all are called and the ruin which we have normalized here and now.

God’s election of himself and of us doesn’t render irrelevant our politics or our efforts to enact justice. The quietist version of “The most important election” lets us off the hook for the world’s misery. It ignores how the embracing of our election is our echo of God’s good purposes for the cosmos. It impels those who embrace the good news of their having been chosen towards God’s good purposes for his creation, for in participating in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ, they are set on his same trajectory to bear witness to God in the present age.

God’s election determines the overall shape of human history because in it God commits himself to persevere through its disasters with humanity as one of us. History will go this way because God is taking responsibility for it. The evil and the catastrophe of that history are absorbed and annihilated by Jesus Christ as humanity’s elected representative such that absolutely anyone, regardless of the shape of their participation in that evil and catastrophe can be made participants in life as it was meant to be lived.

And part of the good news here is there was no deliberation. There was no painstaking process by which votes for and against were tallied. There was no motion for a recount and no contesting of the decision. God’s decision is the speech-act by which he discloses once and for all what he is. He didn’t weigh options before settling on one course he could take: he verbalized the only course he could take as the God that he, in fact, is. There is no shadow of a hidden will behind this God; he has disclosed what he is about and how he accomplishes it in the person, the death, and the resurrection of Jesus Christ. 

And this is why God is not for some but not others. God hasn’t chosen some to the detriment of others. God speaks a stern “No” to our sinfulness and the distortions with which we have debased ourselves. But he says this “No” so that he pronounce an undivided, unadulterated “Yes.” No one is excluded from the outstretching of his arms: all are welcome. A destiny awaits us which we are mobilized to help bring about, understanding all the while that the definitive, decisive thing has already been done. Our part is important, but everything doesn’t ride on it. God’s purposes become our own because he has made himself one of us, sharing all he has and is and is about with the creatures he will stop at nothing to redeem.

So there is a version of election which can relativize our unease and fear in the present. Not by denying the fearfulness of the present, but by situating it within the frame God has set in electing himself to be our God. Though the nations rage (Ps 2:1) and the earth gives way (46:2), though wars and tumult erupt all about (Lk 21:9), though election results are contested and matters of the transference of power set our anxieties ablaze, the creation’s final outcome is not in doubt and not in jeopardy. Not because these things are just illusions and aren’t actually occurring, aren’t actually frightening and dangerous, but because we have the intransigent guarantee that God is the one who is overseeing the drama and the tragedy of human historical existence and is directing it towards comedy. It doesn’t always feel like it or look like it, but the outcome is assured because God has fixed his own identity on its accomplishment. 

So take heart. Yes, 2021 is on the way, but it will have its own problems. All the while God will be the same God who swore to do whatever it takes to make it all right.