The Logic of Jewish Election

At the heart of the debate between Calvinism and Arminianism over the doctrine of election is the understanding of God’s act of predestination.

Within Calvinism, God predestines the elect for salvation and and the “reprobate” are elected for damnation. In other words, God chooses some for salvation and the rest he turns over to the rebellion of their sinful ways. For John Calvin, “By predestination we mean the eternal decree of God, by which he determined with himself whatever he wished to happen with regard to every man. All are not created on equal terms, but some are preordained to eternal life, others to eternal damnation.” [1] Election from this perspective is unconditional.

Within Arminianism, God predestines those whom he foreknew. In other words, God knows in advance who will accept Christ and who will reject him. According to John Wesley, “Who are predestinated? None but those whom God foreknew as believers.” [2] Election from this perspective is conditional upon the individuals’ faith.

Taking a Step Back

This debate has been recycled over and over again for centuries with people taking sides. What we need to do in our generation is to take a step back from the theological debate and take a fresh look at Scripture, starting with Paul, to see how Paul uses the word election. For example in Romans 9 Paul writes:

And not only so, but also when Rebekah had conceived children by one man, our forefather Isaac, though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad—in order that God’s purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of him who calls— she was told, “The older will serve the younger.” As it is written, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.”

Paul uses the terms “election” and “elect,” but what are we to make of it? Does God love some people and thus elects them for salvation and hate others whom he chooses for damnation? Or does God know in advance who will love him and who will hate him? And more importantly, what is “God’s purpose of election” anyway?

Paul was a Jewish thinker who wrote using Jewish language and metaphor. In order to understand how he uses the term election we have to peak into the Jewish context of what it meant for Israel to be the elect, the chosen people of God.

N.T. Wright on Election

One of the top takeaways for me from Tom Wright’s Paul and the Faithfulness of God was on this very issue of election and what it means for followers of Jesus to be justified and thus members of the elect people of God. The key in understanding election is in understanding the logic of Jewish election.

For Wright, Jewish election is not about salvation but about a vocation.

In other words, Israel was not chosen for election so they could have BFF status with the God of creation. They were chosen by God so they could fulfill humanity’s primary vocation of being God’s image-bearers in God’s world, shining the goodness, truth, and beauty of the Creator into all creation. God did not choose Israel so that they could merely occupy a strip of land in the Middle East with a capital in Jerusalem.

The logic of Israel’s election was not God choosing one ethnic group in order to condemn the rest of the world or allow them to remain in pagan darkness. The logic of the election of Israel was God choosing a certain people through whom he would rescue the world with the light of his love. For Wright, the logic of Jewish election is tied to how Paul understood justification.

To be justified is to be put right as the people of God for the purposes of God. In order to see the logic of election within the overarching purposes of God, Wright sketches seven movements which capture the logical context behind his interpretation of Paul’s theology of justification in Paul and the Faithfulness of God pages 942-961:

1. “God the creator intends at the last to remake the creation, righting all wrongs and filling the world with his own presence.” We begin where the Christian narrative begins; we start with the actions of the one true God making the world as a place to be shared with human beings.

2. “For this to happen, humans themselves have to be ‘put right’.” Humanity is intricately connected to God’s world, so they must be put right. God’s way of putting people right is God’s act of justification.

3. “God’s way of accomplishing this is through the covenant.” Even though it may seem like a strange way of setting things right, covenant was, and is, God’s way of redeeming his good creation. God intended all along to remain faithful to Israel.

4. “(The covenant) is how the creator God will put humans to rights.” God is responsible for setting right a world gone wrong and he has the power and authority to do so. He will not only set the world right through covenant, but his covenant with Israel was his particular way of setting all of humanity right.

5. “All these themes point forward to the decisive divine judgment on the last day, in other words, to ‘final eschatology.’” All language regarding justification points to God’s future and final act of judgment, where he will sort out the things gone wrong in his good world. Present justification experienced by those in Jesus the Messiah is a foretaste of the justification to come at the final judgment.

6. “The events concerning Jesus the Messiah are the revelation, in unique and decisive action, of the divine righteousness.” In the death of Jesus, sin—the source of humanity’s wrongdoing—is condemned, and in the resurrection of Jesus, God’s new creation, the very place where the world is being put right, has begun. Through the Messiah we see God’s righteousness displayed both in terms of his covenant faithfulness and his restorative justice.

7. “When Paul speaks about people being ‘justified’ in the present, he is (arguing)…that in the present time the covenant God declares ‘in the right,’ ‘within the covenant,’ all those who hear, believe and obey ‘the gospel’ of Jesus the Messiah.” This declaration creates a new situation, a new status for those who are justified and thus welcomed in as the people of God. Justification is not a description of a person’s moral character but a declaration of a person’s social identity. Wright adds: “Those who are declared or accounted ‘righteous’ on the basis of Messiah-faith constitute the single covenant family which the one God has faithfully given to Abraham.” [3]

As the justified, we are God’s elect, members of God’s chosen people so that through us God can rescue the world. We are the justified justice-bringers, the chosen healers for the broken and wounded, the elect people for the sake of the world.

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[1] Institutes 3.21.7 http://www.reformed.org/books/institutes/books/book3/bk3ch21.html

[2] Sermon 58: On Predestination http://www.umcmission.org/Find-Resources/John-Wesley-Sermons/Sermon-58-On-Predestination

[3] The summary of this list is taken from Through the Eyes of N.T. Wright my reader’s guide to Paul and the Faithfulness of God.

  • joshua

    Derek, Wright’s attempt to read jewishly and find his definitions earlier, rather than later in the text; can this method, which would on the face of it appear to becommon sense, can it be a comfortably preferred method in many denominations or is it more at home in the Anglican tradition? Do you find yourself leaning that way more after reading Wright?

    • Derek Vreeland

      Reading and interpreting Scripture within its historical context is a pretty standard form of evangelical hermeneutics. So this is not just a method within Anglicanism. Reading Paul within Paul’s Jewish context seems to me to fit within this hermeneutic. The push back to this comes from those whose commitment to certain forms of Reformed theology make them uncomfortable with the direction this hermeneutic goes, for example, a Jewish reading of Paul does not make room for the so-called “imputation of Christ’s righteousness.” I agree with Wright. His theological perspective has shaped my own.