My favorite preacher Jonathan Martin covered Romans 8 a couple of weekends ago in his sermon “Nor Things to Come.” It talks about both predestination and election, which are not popular words in the Wesleyan tradition that I share with Jonathan. I really liked what he did with them so I wanted to share very briefly. I think that our predestination and election are good news when we read them the way they are intended to be shared: as a promise. It’s when you add a bunch of extra-Biblical speculation about the negative shadow of predestination and election that the mischief happens.
“For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family.” Romans 8:29
According to Jonathan, predestination is “not about God choosing who’s going to be on his dodgeball team,” but about “God’s promise to complete the work he started in you.” I really like that way of understanding it. It makes complete sense particularly in this context. Verse 26 has just told us that “the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.” As a pastor, when people are having a crisis of faith, I tell them that God has grabbed hold of them and He isn’t going to let go.
The way for us to persevere is to trust that God will bring His work to completion in us. Now if somebody doesn’t persevere, I’m not going to say that goes to show that God chose to reject them before time. No, it means that they didn’t trust God’s promise. And furthermore, it’s ridiculous to talk about that in the hypothetical because who am I to know who perseveres and who doesn’t. I can get along with responsible Calvinists who simply want to affirm that we make it because God guarantees it; I’ve just got a problem with the ones who want to claim higher theological ground by deliberately presenting an ugly depiction of God that others can’t accept.
“Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies.” Romans 8:33
The way that Jonathan describes election is to say it’s God “choosing some people to be the light that draws other people to Him.” I think that way of putting it does justice to Israel’s vocation as the original elect to be a blessing to all nations. The purpose of this particular verse is to say if God has justified you through Christ, you have been set free from any charge against you. It’s interesting to note that God, at least here, is defending us against other peoples’ charges as opposed to dropping His own charges.
There is of course a perverse way of reading this to say that I can get away with anything now that I’ve been justified. This flows right out of the popular evangelical theology in some circles that says nonsense like “God no longer sees your sin; He just sees Jesus’ blood.” I always think of the two “born-again” genocidal dictators Charles Taylor of Liberia and Efrain Rios-Montt of Guatemala. Rios-Montt was an ordained Pentecostal minister in addition to being a general who took over his government. He was holding prayer revivals in the capital city while his death squads butchered the Mayans in the hills. When Charles Taylor went on trial, his “born-again” faith was attested fervently by televangelist Pat Robertson, whom he helped to establish diamond mines that Robertson ran under the false pretenses of an organization called Operation Blessing.
So what happens to people like Taylor and Rios-Montt or for that matter my unrepentant arm-trafficking fellow Virginian Oliver North, who is also a “born-again” Christian? What if they can justify their genocidal actions with perfect sincerity and say they were just fighting the “communist” bad guys like Ollie did during the Iran-Contra hearings to the cheers of millions of red-blooded Americans across the country? I need for them to have to face the music one day, whatever that looks like. I’m horrified by the thought of a nihilistic schema of imputed righteousness applied to their cases. I think that having a presumptuous attitude about God’s justification is indicative of one’s lack of justification. Or perhaps it’s the case that God allows us to un-elect ourselves with our self-justification.
Of course, there I go speculating like I said we shouldn’t do. Really there are two aspects of election that we need to care about: 1) We have a vocation to be a light to the world as God’s people. 2) If God has claimed us, no enemy has any dominion over us. I know that God is just and perfectly loving to me and all people. I know that I will make it because of Him. That’s all I need to say about my predestination and election.