Friday, June 1, 2018

What does "election" and "calling" mean in the New Testament?

Following up on my last post dealing with the OT definition of “election,” I’ve compiled my own finding of how the New Testament speaks of “election” and “calling” (both terms seem to be used similarly). In this study, the main themes to consider are whether the NT speaks of election/chosen/called as something that is (1) unconditional, (2) able to be lost, (3) unto salvation, and (4) corporate or individual. Going through all the verses where these terms have been used, to the best of my ability, here is how I’ve organized the ways the terms are used:

Speaking of Jesus choosing the Apostles:
Luke says that Jesus called many disciples, but only “chose” twelve of them by name to be Apostles (Lk 6:13; John 15:16; 15:19; Acts 1:2). From Judas being one of those “chosen” Apostles (Lk 6:13; Jn 6:70; 13:18), we can conclude this election was not unto (final) salvation, and could be lost (Lk 6:13; cf. Jn 17:12; Acts 1:25). The choice for these specific men was seemingly conditional, as it doesn’t seem anyone famous, rich, or powerful was chosen. Instead, from what we do know, Jesus picked four fishermen and a tax collector. And when it came to replacing Judas, candidates were selected based upon having personally walked with Jesus and saw Him Resurrected (Acts 1:21-26), with God being said to do the “choosing” among the final two candidates (Acts 1:24). Similarly, Jesus “called” apostles and Lazarus, but none of this was unto final salvation in and of itself (Mat 4:21-22; John 12:17). 

Similarly, the Apostles are said to have “chosen” certain qualified men to be deacons (Acts 6:5), to serve the poor, so neither unconditional nor about (final) salvation (cf Acts 6:2-3). And the same general conclusion can be said when the Church “chose” Barnabas and Silas (Acts 15:22; 15:25; cf Acts 13:1-3; Heb 11:8), because they were “leading men among the brothers” (cf Acts 15:32, 15:40).

Speaking of various individuals:
Jesus is called “the elect of God” (Lk 23:35) and the “elect” cornerstone (1 Pet 2:4-6). Being the Son of God, we certainly can conclude this election to be the Messiah was not unconditional, and was not an election unto salvation. After Herod died, God “called” Jesus out of Egypt, by means of Mary & Joseph (Mat 2:15). When recounting his conversion, Paul is said to be “chosen” by God to be a missionary to the Gentiles (Acts 9:15-16; 22:14; 26:16; Gal 1:15-16; Rom 1:1; 1Cor 1:1-2), which is seemingly not unconditional (cf 1 Tim 1:13-16; Gal 1:23-24; Phil 3:4-6), and even seemingly losable (cf 1 Cor 9:27; Gal 1:8; Phil 3:12-14; 2 Tim 4:7-8). Similarly, God is said to have “called” Paul to minister in certain areas (Acts 16:6-10). Peter says God “chose” him to first preach the Gospel to the Gentiles (Acts 15:17), which seems conditional since this would be fitting for him as the leader of the Church. Lastly, a man named Rufus is said to be “elect in the Lord” (Rom 16:13), which is interesting because none of the other saintly people named within the context are called “elect”. We know the other people are Christian, so this “election” must refer to something other than salvation, possibly because his mother helped Paul or even because his father Simon the Cyrene helped Jesus carry the Cross (cf Mk 15:21). In these examples election was not about being unto final salvation
Speaking of Israel as a chosen group (i.e. corporate election):
Paul famously says: “as regards election, they [Israel, corporately] are beloved for the sake of their forefathers” (Rom 11:28). This clearly shows their election is based upon the fidelity of the “chosen” OT Patriarchs (Acts 13:17), and thus not unconditional. And in some sense they lost their election, at least temporarily, because of unbelief (cf Rom 11:25; 11:20-21). The corporate “elect remnant” seems conditioned upon those who remained faithful rather than become apostate (Rom 11:4-5, 11:7). 

A generally controversial text, Romans 9:11, speaks of Jacob and Esau as “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…” This text mentions some key terms, both “election” and “calling,” as well as “purpose” and “not of works”. This verse (and the surrounding verses) has been taken by many, especially Reformed/Calvinist types, as one of the clearest proofs that election unto heaven is unconditional. But based upon what we’ve seen so far, that’s not the assumption we should start off making, and with our fuller understanding of election, we can see the verse/context in question also doesn’t quite fit the unconditional reading either. I will discuss this passage in my next post, but for now just consider that (1) the stated purpose is “the elder serving the younger,” which cannot really be a euphemism for ‘predestined to hell’ nor heaven; (2) the actual OT text in question literally says these two men symbolize “nations” and “peoples,” and thus a corporate situation (Gen 25:23), and (3) we know sin was involved with Esau selling his birthright (Gen 25:32-34). More is going to be said in my next post, but these three statements are fair to the text, they go against the typical assumptions of what election/calling refers to, and my claims don’t require the presumptions like the Calvinist reading does. Moving on.

Speaking of corporate (group) election of Christian congregations:
It seems that most often when Christians are referred to as elect/called, it is within the context of them as a congregation at a major city, and often in the introduction of the Epistle when they are addressed as a group. Nothing within these passages suggest the only people in the congregation being referred to as “elect” are only a subset of all those in the congregation. Rather, it is speaking to them all. And even though elements of salvation are often mentioned, the Epistles are still filled with warnings throughout about falling away. The corporate nature and warnings taken together would indicate Heaven is not guaranteed despite being referred to as elect/called, and that’s because it is possible to individually fall away from the chosen community. Consider the following from nearly every NT Epistle:
  • The whole congregation at Rome is corporately said to be “called to belong to Jesus” and “called to be saints” (Rom 1:6-7), but we also know they were warned that they could fall away individually by apostasy, just as the original branches were broken off (cf Rom 11:17-23). (There’s more on Romans below, and for future posts.)
  • The church of God at Corinth, to them that are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints” (1Cor 1:1-2; 1:9), clearly is corporate, and to “them which are called, both Jews and Greeks” (1Cor 1:24), i.e., the two ‘races’ of Christians. Paul adds that many of these in the congregation were poor, nobodies, and despised by society, and yet God “chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise” and “what is low and despised” all to prevent boasting (1Cor 1:26-28). This suggests a conditional election, based upon their low status, and for a purpose of preventing boasting. And despite this, we also know the Corinthians were one of the worst behaved congregations, with many warnings given to them. Similarly, in 1 Cor 7:15-21, Paul speaks of God “calling” people to certain vocations in life, which don’t in themselves suggest anything soteric (i.e. pertaining to salvation).
  • Speaking of the Galatians, Paul starts off by saying: “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel” (Gal 1:6). And later on: “You were running well. Who hindered you from obeying the truth? This persuasion is not from him who calls you.” (Gal 5:7-8) This is astonishing, since Paul says that despite these people being called, they are “deserting” Jesus and turning to a false gospel! This certainly cannot suggest they were elected unto heaven or that they cannot fall due to sinning. Indeed, Paul even says in the same breath that while God “called” them to freedom, they should not misuse that freedom lest they suffer the consequences (Gal 5:13).  
  • The church at Ephesus is told that God “chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption” (Eph 1:4-5) And later on warns them to stay on the right track: “I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called” (Eph 4:1; 4:4).
  • The Philippians are told that even though Paul has an “upward” (heavenly) “calling,” this is not yet secure and indeed he must persevere (Philippians 3:12-14).
  • The Colossians are called God’s elect, but they are warned they must behave properly and forgive one another (Col 3:12-13).
  • The Thessalonians seem to be corporately chosen based upon the fact they eagerly received the Gospel and would be a great testimony to nearby cities (see 1 hess 1:4-10). And even though Paul says God has “chosen you [from the beginning] as the firstfruits to be saved” and as “called you through our gospel, so that you may obtain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ,” this is within the context of resisting the Man of Sin, who will delude many (2Thess 2:13-15). Among the various other warnings throughout both Epistles to them, in a context sternly warning them to avoid sexual immorality, Paul says “God has not called us for impurity” (1Thess 4:3-8). So even though salvation is being discussed, it’s not suggesting they are assured of Heaven, and indeed that impurity is a real danger.
  • Even though Timothy isn’t a congregation, it seems that Paul was addressing it to Timothy’s congregation indirectly. For example: “Therefore I endure everything for the sake of the elect, that they also may obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus with eternal glory” (2Tim 2:10). This suggests the elect need help to be saved in the end, not that they are guaranteed salvation, and he gives a warning of sorts in this context (2Tim 2:12): if we endure, we will reign; if we deny Him, he will deny us. Similarly, even though he says Timothy is “called” to heaven, he must still persevere by “fighting the good fight” (1Tim 6:12).
  • Hebrews 3:1 and Hebrews 9:15 speaks corporately of “those who share in a heavenly calling,” and even though this does speak of calling specifically to heaven, the chapter and whole book are devoted to stern warnings to remain on the right track. This suggests this calling can be lost through sin.
  • James gives us an interesting detail about those called, namely that God has “chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom, which he has promised to those who love him” (James 2:5). In this case, “the poor” are a group of people chosen (thus corporate), and that they were chosen because they were poor (thus not unconditional), and that this is isn’t guaranteed heaven since it can be lost through bad behavior, namely not loving (which is why James yells at the congregation throughout the context and the Epistle itself).
  • Peter speaks to Christians corporately as called unto obedience (1Peter 1:1-2), as “an elect generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation” (1Peter 2:9-12), words that were once given to the Israelites (Ex 19:5-6), with many warnings in both of his Epistles. Most notably, “brothers, be all the more diligent to confirm your calling and election, for if you practice these qualities you will never fall” (2Peter 1:10). Peter also says just as God is holy, we are called to be holy (1Peter 1:15), that we are called to suffer and must (1Peter 2:21), and that we are called to forgive our enemies if we want to be saved (1Peter 3:9). All this certainly sounds like election/calling can be lost by sin. And right within the context of Peter saying God “has called you to his eternal glory in Christ” also he mentions the devil is prowling about ready to devour those not careful and not persevering through suffering (1 Peter 5:8-10).
  • John was seemingly addressing a corporate house church when he spoke of “the elect lady and her children” (2Jn 1:1,13), along with the warning that they not be deceived by false teachers, “so that you may not lose what you have worked for” (2Jn1:8).
  • Jude addresses his Epistle “to the called” (Jude1:1), understood as speaking to all Christians reading it, and there are many warnings throughout his brief writing.
It seems the common theme in all these congregations is that they had high callings, involving elements of salvation, but that this calling/election never was meant to indicate that Christians were assured of heaven and couldn’t have their status affected by sin.  Or it could mean that while the Body of Christ corporately was headed towards heaven, individual members could be removed from this Body, similar to how the Israelites were corporately called to greatness but individuals could still fall away and lose their covenant promises.

A few interesting passages, which don’t particularly fit in any of the above categories:
  • Jesus says: “many are called by few are chosen (elect)” (Mat 22:14). Those who were invited to the banquet but didn’t show up were still “called” (Mat 22:3), which would suggest calling is resistible. Furthermore, it would also suggest that answering the call doesn’t guarantee heaven/perseverance, for the example is about someone who answered the call but was rejected for not being properly disposed. In this case, “elect” would mean a person who was chosen based upon being properly disposed, so it is not unconditional.  
  • Jesus says the days of tribulation would be cut short so that the “elect” would survive. (Matt 24:22//Mk 13:20; Matt24:24//Mk 13:22; Matt24:31//Mk 13:27) This indicates that the elect could be lost, if God didn’t intervene. Jesus is also giving warnings of what to look for so as to not be deceived. This suggests the elect must persevere (cf Mt 24:13 and love growing cold).
  • Jesus gives a parable of the talents, wherein the Master “calls his servants,” with one of the “called” servants being punished for his infidelity. (Mat 25:14-15)
Verses with insufficient data to conclude much, if anything:
In no particular order: Jesus said he did not come to “call” the righteous but sinners to repentance (Lk 5:32). Jesus concludes a parable by saying the Father will make sure his “elect” are heard when they persevere in prayer (Lk 18:7). Peter says the salvation promises are to everyone whom the Lord “calls” to himself (Acts 2:39). Paul speaks of “the elect angels” (1Tim 5:21) in passing. Paul speaks of “for the sake of the faith of God's elect” (Titus 1:1) in the introduction. John says there is a victorious group who are aligned with the Lamb (Jesus) who are “called and chosen and faithful” (Rev 17:14), though including “faithful” here suggests that being called/chosen isn’t enough. John speaks of those ‘called to the marriage supper’ of the Lamb, those who were like a Bride making themselves ready through righteous deeds (Rev 19:7-9). I’m not sure what to conclude from these. We know what is being said, but the details behind the calling/election are not given. 

Finally, there are some noteworthy ‘controversial’ texts to consider (mostly from Romans), but this will have to be in later posts. Most importantly thus far we should note that based upon what has been shown above, a general sketch of calling/election/chosen can be formed. We know it isn’t really focused on ‘unconditional’, nor upon a guarantee of making it to heaven, and that quite often it is speaking corporately when speaking of salvation. This should mean that this is our guiding principles going into the 'controversial' few texts which have yet to be covered (Romans 8:28-30; Romans 8:33; Romans 9:11; Romans 9:24; Romans 11:5-7; and 2Timothy 1:9).

No comments: