Monday, December 29, 2014

S2. Saving us is part of God's plan.

This is the second post in a section on salvation in my ongoing series, theology in bullet points. The first set had to do with God and Creation, and I have also finished sections on Christology and Atonement.
Saving us is part of God's plan.

1. One area of great debate among Christians is the nature of God's predestination. Since the New Testament uses language of predestination and election, the question is not so much whether we believe in predestination at all as what we mean by it.

Take Romans 8:29-30: "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. And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified" (NRSV).

So in the Calvinist interpretation, God has predetermined by divine decree who is going to be saved. We have nothing whatsoever to do with it. Those who believe in "double predestination" would say that God has both predetermined who will be saved and who will be damned. Those who believe in "single predestination" would say that God has predetermined who will be saved but the damned were already damned as a consequence of Adam's sin. God simply does not save them.

A traditional Arminian interpretation is to focus on the word "foreknew." Knowing the choices that we would make, God prearranged our conformity to the image of God, that we would be transformed into his likeness. Knowing what we would choose, he prearranged our election, our justification, and our glorification.

Perhaps both of these approaches miss Paul's point to some degree, for Paul is not really talking about the question of who will be saved here. He is talking about what the end game actually is for believers. The Roman believers may be suffering now, but that is not the end game. His point is that everything will turn out wonderfully in the end.

The plan is salvation, resurrection, and glorification in the end. "All things work together for good for those who love God" (Rom. 8:28), that is his point. And he is not talking about what happened to me today. He was not saying that my car accident will somehow bring something good. He is saying that, despite the sufferings of the present, our bodies and the creation will be gloriously transformed when Christ returns. That is the good toward which all things work together.

The good toward which all things work is being "conformed to the image of his Son," which in Paul is not about becoming more and more Christ-like but being transformed in the resurrection. "Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we will also bear the image of the man of heaven" (1 Cor. 15:49), Paul says in a chapter about resurrection. This is what glorification ultimately means, to have our bodies transformed at the resurrection and restoration of the cosmos.

So the focus of these verses, as all such verses, is not who is in and who is out. The focus in Romans 8 is on God's plan. Paul does not use this language to point out who is out. He uses it to give hope, purpose, and value to those who are already in. How do you know who is elect, who is predestined? It is by seeing who is here and who endures to the end. Otherwise how could 2 Peter 1:10 tell its audience to make its election sure and to make sure they do not stumble? Their election would seem in this case to be conditional depending on their endurance.

2. There are three important factors to keep in mind when we read language of predestination in the New Testament. The first is that such language is almost always collective language. Ephesians 1:5 tells its probably vast audience that God destined us for adoption (rather than me). [1] Notice again the focus on the plan--God chose us to be holy and blameless (1:4) and for adoption (1:5).

Even in Romans 9, Paul is not really talking about individuals being chosen, some for special use and some for destruction (9:21-22). This entire chapter is about the mystery of God showing mercy on the Gentiles while judging those in Israel who have not believed. The focus is on groups rather than individuals (Jews and Gentiles).

And even among these groups, Paul goes on in Romans 11 to suggest that those who do not currently believe in Israel can be grafted back in (11:23), while those Gentiles who are grafted in can be cut back out (11:21). This is nothing like the fixed plan of the Calvinist. This is language that suggests that our actions are key to whether we are in or out of the tree.

3. A second thing to keep in mind that this was the language of Paul's world. The ancient world was fatalistic in a way that gave great allowance for individual choice as well. Take the story of Oedipus, where it is exactly as each individual fights against his fate that his fate is ultimately accomplished.

True, Josephus does speak of different Jewish groups believing more or less in free will. But N. T. Wright has plausibly suggested that this language was more code for whether those groups believed the Jews should actively seek to bring about God's will or passively sit back and let God accomplish it on his own. [2] In other words, Josephus was talking less about philosophy and more about politics.

Paul and other New Testament authors therefore may use this language, but that does not mean that they have a philosophical investment in it. It was arguably Augustine in the late 300s and early 400s who began to interpret this language in philosophical categories that connected the dots, so to speak. The New Testament uses language of predestination and it uses language of human responsibility to choose. It does not work out this language philosophically, which requires us to reinterpret one set of imagery in deference to the other.

4. So we have to ask how predestination language functions, what it does, rather than what it might mean in a philosophy class. Such language functions to say that God is in control. Such language functions to give value to those who are here in the room, that God loves them and has a plan for their ultimate salvation. On the other hand, it does not function to "lock in" certain people and exclude others. It does not serve to predict who will be in or out.

It, thus, always functions "after the fact." Paul does not use it as a prediction of who will be in in the future but as a valuation of those who are already here. Who is predestined? Who is elect? The answer is those who have faith and are living in faithfulness.

Saving us is part of God's plan. He always planned to save us, before he created the world. He has predestined us to be saved. He has chosen us, elected us.

But he wants everyone to be saved (1 Tim. 2:4). He has not chosen some and not others. Anyone who calls on the Lord will be saved (Rom. 10:13). His plan is salvation.

Next post: S3. God was reaching out to us far before we knew it.

[1] The words, "at Ephesus," in Ephesians 1:1 were not present in the earliest manuscripts of this document. Similarly, the book has the least concrete feel of any of the letters in the Pauline collection. No specific details relating to a concrete audience are mentioned other than the mention of Tychicus at the end (6:21). It thus seems likely that Ephesians was intended for a very general audience indeed. Some even think it may have been a circular letter.

[2] The New Testament and the People of God. (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1992), **.

1 comment:

Martin LaBar said...

Thank you for this!