Equipping God's People to Create Missional Culture

A Missional View of the Doctrine of Election – Part V

How a Robust View of Election Leads to a Holistic Gospel and Meaningful Missional Engagement

Part I is the introduction to this series. In Part II, I look at missional modes of theological reflection. In Part III, I look at Grudem and Newbigin’s starting points (key questions and key texts), and in Part IV their views on the doctrine of election.  Now let’s look at how they understand judgment.

Election and Judgment
When Grudem talks about election as it relates to God’s judgment, he prefers to stay away from the term “double predestination” because he feels it blurs the distinction between “election” and “reprobation.” “Reprobation is the sovereign decision of God before creation to pass over some persons, in sorrow deciding not to save them, and to punish them for their sins, and thereby to manifest justice.”[1] He admits that this is a difficult doctrine to swallow and that Calvin himself said, “The decree is dreadful indeed”.[2] He looks to Romans 9 as the primary focus, in addition to other verses. Grudem believes that “the eternal damnation of some will show God’s justice and also result in his glory.”[3] One of the reasons Grudem separates election from reprobation is that God actively chooses us for salvation, but “the blame for the condemnation of sinners is always put on the people… never on God himself.”[4]

Newbigin would consider Grudem’s understanding of judgment one of the “disastrous misunderstandings” of the doctrine of election (or implications of the doctrine) because for Newbigin the doctrine of election is not about being exclusive beneficiaries, but about being bearers of the blessing. It is this understanding of election which disturbs Newbigin the most.  For Newbigin God’s electing grace, “can never become the ground for making claims against God which exclude others. (He has consigned all to disobedience in order that he may have mercy upon all.)”[5] When Newbigin turns his attention to Romans 9, he reads it in light of the whole story of God and chapters 9-11 in particular. Newbigin, this passage has “often been used as a basis for false teaching about election.”[6] Space is limited to cover his argument adequately, but essentially God has chosen Israel, but Israel as a nation, rejected God’s chosen Messiah.  Does this mean God abandons them? No.  So how is this to be understood?  Newbigin makes the point that God retains his freedom to do what he wants, he could make some vessels for honor and some for destruction. But “God, says Paul, has hardened the heart of Israel so that the gospel which they reject – so to say – bounce off to the Gentiles … So the apostasy of Israel has brought salvation to the Gentiles.  Does this mean that Israel is lost? No! Impossible!  God can never cast off his chosen people.  As proof of this he has kept a remnant (as so often in the past) as pledge that Israel is not rejected. … And how is it all to end?  The answer is that this hardening of the heart of Israel is until the full number of Gentiles come in, and so all Israel will be saved (11:25).  In the end, therefore, it is through the Gentiles that Israel will be saved.  So the logic of election is complete.  I said earlier that in the biblical view there could be no salvation straight from above through the skylight, but only as we open the door to the neighbor whom God has appointed to be the bearer of salvation”.[7]

With a strong universal tone to his understanding of election, how does Newbigin understand judgment?  He seeks to hold both the universalist perspective of the Scripture in tension with the “clear teaching about judgment and the possibility of rejection.”[8] He rejects a rationalist universalism that argues from “the omnipotence of God’s love to the necessary ultimate salvation of every soul.”[9] He argues that we must refuse to engage “in speculation about the ultimate salvation of other people”[10] in part because when Jesus talks about the judgment there is always a surprise factor involved, “the reversal of expectations” where those who thought they were in, ended up out, and vice versa. And finally, when Jesus talk about rejection in regard to final judgment, many passages are warnings that are given to “the people who are sure about their salvation.  It is directed not to the outsider but to the insider.  It is those who say “Lord, Lord” who will find themselves rejected.”[11] Newbigin feels the Christian life needs to be lived in the tension of a godly fear and godly confidence.[12]

In Part VI, I give my personal assessment.

[1] Grudem, Systematic Theology, p. 685.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid., p. 686
[4] Ibid.
[5] Newbigin, Gospel in Pluralist Society, p. 85.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Ibid., pp. 83,84.
[8] Newbigin, The Open Secret, p. 79.
[9] Ibid.
[10] Ibid.
[11] Ibid., p. 80.
[12] Ibid., p. 81.

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