How then has He chosen us, before we came into existence, but that, as he says himself, in Him we were represented beforehand? – Athanasius
This is a response to C. Michael Patton’s “Open Letter to Arminians”. Michael is the creator of Credo House, an online hub for reformed theology and scholarship. Credo House is a resource for Christians looking to dip their toes in theology and historical apologetics.
Michael’s letter is an earnest plea for Arminians to quit being afraid about unconditional election and to take the plunge into Calvinism. Sure, the water may feel cold at first, but you’ll feel warm in time. Michael gives us his story of becoming a Calvinist. He explains he first encountered election as a 21 year old who was instructed by his mother to read Romans 9. He describes becoming “torn, broken, sad, confused, in a panic, and downright angry.” It’s unclear when he emerged from this state of brokenness, but we know his sadness was replaced with peace. More recently, while reading Tom Schreiner’s study on Romans 9, Michael felt more comfort, and felt no anxiety about the lost.
Michael believes Arminians have a fear about election and predestination similar to his own. He is convinced we know corporate election is “empty” and that underneath our fancy arguments, we’re scared because we know unconditional election is true. Michael challenges us to believe that (1) God loves everyone and also that (2) he chose to send his son to die for some and not for others. (Passages like John 3:16, which tell us *how* God loved the world [by sending his son for it] is not mentioned.)
Now, my response.
Christ the Elect
Michael, I appreciate your sincerity. However, I’m pleased to inform you we Arminians are not afraid of election. We revel in it! To us, election is not bitter medicine. It’s the unifying thread of God’s redemptive history weaving from Genesis through Revelation. To us, election fits into a bigger story of how God saves the world. God chose Abraham to bear the seed which would bless the world (Gen.12:3). God then chose only one nation from Abraham’s progeny – Israel – to bear this promise (Deut. 14:2; see also Isa. 42:1). Israel was chosen to be the nation “in whom I delight; I will put my Spirit on him, and he will bring justice to the nations.” Israel failed its calling. Yet God continued chose only one tribe of Israel, Judah, to inherit the promise. Again, of all the families of Judah, God chose the house of David. Of all the descendants of David, God finally chose Jesus of Nazareth, whom he reveals is none other than his Son.
The presentation of the Messiah is the final dramatic act in God’s saga. Jesus is revealed to be the promised seed in whom God would fulfill his promise to Abraham (Gal. 3:16). Jesus was the chosen servant in whom God delighted (Matt. 3:17). All of this is to say that Jesus Christ is chosen to fulfill the promises. This was no afterthought. Christ, we are told, was “chosen from before the creation of the world.”
Calvinist readers may grow impatient at this point. What does God’s redemptive history, or Christ his son, have anything to do with election? Isn’t election all about us? For Arminians (including those who predicate election on foreknowledge), God’s history of choosing is leading us to the climax of the story, that climax being Christ the chosen one. So where do we fit within this story?
We the Elect
If Christ is the chosen seed, the question of election is, “how is one included into Abraham’s seed?” Paul answers this question explicitly in Galatians 3:
So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise. Gal.3:26-29
The participatory language is unmistakable. Through faith in Christ we become children of God. We who were “baptized into” Christ are now “clothed” with Christ. If we belong to him, then we become Abraham’s seed!
To express it more succinctly: we are chosen in Christ. What does that mean? Let’s start with some neutral examples. In addition to being chosen in Christ, Scripture tells us we are “seated in the heavenly realms in Christ”, righteous in Christ, and sons in Christ.
In each example, Christ bears the original blessing which only becomes ours when we become included into him. None of us are literally seated in heavenly realms. But Christ is, and we are in Christ; therefore, in Christ, we are seated in the heavenly realms. So to be chosen in Christ means the same as being righteous in Christ, holy in Christ, and sons in Christ. Christ is the one chosen from before the creation of the world. In Christ, we become chosen in him from before the creation of the world. Thus, “when believers come to be in Christ by faith, they come to share in his history, identity, and destiny.”
The reason, therefore, we revel in the doctrine of election is that it’s ultimately not about us. It’s about Christ. Christ is the head, and we are his body, and therefore his representatives. Or, to use Peter’s metaphor, Christ is the cornerstone who was “rejected by humans but chosen by God,” and in him we are “like living stones”, a “chosen people, a royal priesthood.” Election, to Arminians, begins and ends with Christ. Whether you call that a “Christocentric”, “Corporate”, or “Barthian” view, the bottom-line is that it is in Christ. And that’s a beautiful thing. Once you accept that you are chosen in *him*, you don’t have to approach theology as if it were one puzzle after the next. God’s love is a truism, not a conundrum.
Seen this way, corporate election is not a novelty. It should be what we expect from reformed theology. Compare it with the basis of righteousness, according to Calvin:
You see that our righteousness is not in ourselves, but in Christ; that the only way in which we become possessed of it is by being made partakers of Christ, since with him we possess all riches. Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion 3.11.23.
More recently, there is a trend among reformed scholars to view the blessings of justification and new creation as brought through inclusion into Christ. Michael Bird, summing up his proposal of “incorporated righteousness”, states that “whether it is reconciliation, justification, or new creation—all are ‘in him.'” D.A. Carson also writes that “justification is, in Paul, irrefragably tied to our incorporation into Christ, to our union with Christ.” (Carson, The Vindication of Imputation, 2004) (emphasis added). Indeed, justification is tied to incorporation. Arminians simply take this a step further, acknowledging that every spiritual blessing is in Christ – not just righteousness.
But Romans 9
From your article, it seems you’ve read Tom Schreiner’s work on Romans 9 and also Arminian works on corporate election. Your letter doesn’t point to any particular deficiency in the corporate view of election, except to claim they are motivated by fear. You may wish to consider the possibility they are motivated by careful exegesis. Even Calvinist scholars like Douglas Moo have conceded that “[a]dvocates of the corporate interpretation of these verses make a strong case.” Since oceans of ink have already been spilled in analyzing and defending the corporate view of election in Romans 9-11 and Ephesians 1, I point you to this helpful introduction. It seems the bulk of your view of election is based on Romans 9, which is more aimed at discussing God’s faithfulness to Israel than Christian election. While a line-by-line is beyond the scope of this response, I agree with (Calvinist!) scholar FF Bruce’s point:
In some schools of theological thought, unfortunately, the doctrine of election has been formulated too much on the basis of this preliminary stage in Paul’s present argument, without adequate account being taken of his further exposition of God’s purpose in election at the conclusion of the argument (11:25–32).
Bruce, Romans (Tyndale New Testament Commentaries) (p. 190).
In fact, I believe the Calvinist has the greater challenge in exegeting Romans 9 in a manner that logically leads to its conclusion in the end of chapter 9, and further in chapter 11. Yes, it’s God who elects, hardens, and shows mercy. But Paul’s conclusion is not “Israel didn’t get what it sought (righteousness) because God chose not to show mercy.” Rather, his conclusion is Israel didn’t get what they sought because “they pursued it not by faith but as if it were by works.” Rom. 9:32. The idea isn’t that God didn’t choose to save Israel. It’s that Israel failed to abide by God’s chosen means of salvation: grace, through faith. The chosen people are characterized by their submission to God’s terms of righteousness. To stop here would still be an injustice to Paul, who continues his argument right into chapters 10 and 11. In chapter 10, he explains faith comes from hearing the word, and then exclaims that Israel both heard and understood the word! In chapter 11, Paul explains that God didn’t cause the “non-elect” individuals of Israel to stumble so that they would fall, but rather to provoke them to envy and salvation. The basis of God’s enduring faithfulness to the hardened, stumbling, gospel-rejecting Israelites is God’s endorsement that, “with respect to the election, they are loved on account of their forefathers.”
Truth over Comfort
Finally, a note about comfort. Please remember that one’s beliefs are not true simply because they comfort him. Belief in Santa Claus is profoundly comforting. It is not true. In Paul’s case, his theology of the Messiah gave him hope, comfort, and also anguish. Paul encouraged the church not to be anxious for anything, but he had “great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart” for his kin. Such was his anguish that he preferred separation from Christ “for the sake of my brothers, those of my own race.” Paul goes on to pray for these hardened Israelites “that they may be saved.” He takes pride in the hope that, through his own ministry to the Gentiles, he would “somehow arouse my own people to envy and save some of them.” Think about that. Such was Paul’s anguish that he became “all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.” Good theology is marked by anguish for the lost, not contentment.
Yet for all his anguish, Paul still had hope. Why? What gave him hope? Paul’s hope was in the God who “has bound everyone over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all.” I pray you find truth in this hope too.