Volume 45 - Issue 3
I’m so Grateful That I’m among the ElectBy D. A. Carson
Many of us, I suspect, have played the game where one person says a word, and everyone else, without a pause for reflection, responds with what immediately comes to mind.
So, without thinking about it, what springs to your mind when I say: Election? I’m writing this about forty days before November 3, so if you are an American I suspect the mental referent instantly conjured up by the word “election” is the consequential US election that takes place this year. Of course, if the people playing the game were a small group of theological students who had just heard an hour’s lecture on Romans 9, expectations might well have shifted such that what would spring to mind would lie in the theological arena, not the political. To guarantee the dominance of the theological arena in our little game, we could replace “election” with “predestination,” since the former appears to be a subset of the latter, and the latter does not normally call up the world of politics (though doubtless it should!). So what springs to mind when either “election” or “predestination” is introduced into our little game, with the game set in a theological arena? What word associations do these words conjure up: Reformed theology? Divine sovereignty? Theological disputation? Dort? Westminster Confession? Determinism? Mystery? Foreknowledge? Compatibilism? Barth’s distinctive view of election? Free will? Grace? The goodness of God?
How about gratitude?
Forget the game. Just think back to all the occasions when you have thought about or studied election, or discussed it with others: was gratitude the overwhelming response of your heart and mind? Not for a moment should we think that all the other associations are inappropriate. It is right and good to think long and hard about election and all the themes exegetically and theologically associated with it. But why is gratitude so rarely included among them?
I was driven to meditate on this question recently when I was working on the great thanksgiving prayer of Ephesians 1:3–14. “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,” Paul begins, “who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ” (1:3). In the following verses, the apostle fleshes out the kinds of things he has in mind when he declares that he praises God for “every spiritual blessing in Christ.” The very first thing he mentions is election: “For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will” (1:4–5).
We could usefully reflect on the modifiers. For example, we were chosen “in him” (i.e., in Christ); we were predestined for adoption to sonship “through Jesus Christ.” What does it mean to be blessed “in the heavenly realms” in Christ? Surely it is right to reflect on the goal of election, namely, “to be holy and blameless in his sight” (1:4). But what cannot be overlooked is that Paul offers thankful praise to God that he is among the elect. So important is this theme for Paul that he returns to it in vv. 11–12, using slightly different words: “In him we were also chosen [perhaps with the overtone ‘appointed as God’s inheritance’], having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will, in order that we, who were the first to put our hope in Christ, might be for the praise of his glory.” In the flow of the prayer, Paul is almost bursting with gratitude.
Those of us who understand that election is frequently presented in the Bible as unconditional understand that one of the proper functions of election is to instill gratitude. We love to sing:
I sought the Lord, and afterward I knew
He moved my heart to seek him, seeking me.
It was not I that found, O Savior true;
No, I was found by thee.
And then, calling up the scene of Peter walking (or not!) on the water:
Thou didst reach forth thy hand, and mine enfold.
I walked, and sank not, on the storm-swept sea.
‘Twas not so much that I on thee took hold,
As thou, dear Lord, on me.
At some level or other, we know these things. Nevertheless, I suspect that not a few readers of this editorial, when they first saw the title, were initially taken aback. “Doubtless we ought to be thankful we are among the elect,” you muttered, “but to put it like that hovers very close to arrogance, and is in danger of all the ugliest caricatures of Calvinism. Shouldn’t the language be toned down a bit?”
And then I came across a beautiful expression of gratitude for election in the life of a young Christian widow. We’ll call her Rachel, and her deceased husband, a faithful and effective pastor, we’ll call Robert. Robert died of a disease that ravaged his body and his mind. I have Rachel’s permission to share with you parts of her letter. Two or three details have been altered to mask her identity, but the words are all hers, very lightly edited to ensure coherence. At this point in her letter she is talking about singing along, with her children, the songs live-streamed from her church:
These songs are moving to me, especially “The Perfect Wisdom of Our God.” I picked it for Robert’s funeral because of the last verse:
Each strand of sorrow has a place
Within this tapestry of grace.
So through the trials I choose to say,
“Your perfect will in your perfect way.”
As Robert was losing his health and his mind, I had about five big reasons why this did not seem remotely perfect. I can remember saying to Robert’s co-pastor that I was choking on the words. But at my lowest point I did reluctantly and sulkily choose to sing them. The significant thing wasn’t whether or not I was sulky. The significant thing was that I did actually sing them, declaring my faith in God and his big picture—my faith in him.…
In terms of “moral goodness” (if there is such a thing), I think I’m pretty average. Or maybe I’m being generous to myself: I’m prone to being too carefree and selfish, given to extremes and self-indulgence. But I am often able to show commitment and kindness and integrity. So yeah, average, really, on crude terms.
But I do feel marked out. I am marked out! And I’m convinced that what marks me out is where I choose to put my faith.
I believe myself to be constantly and undeservedly blessed, disproportionately upheld and provided for, unexpectedly finding myself surrounded by joy, peace, hope, love, wonderful people and uplifting children. My life has been rescued and redeemed over and over again despite my relentless failures and flaws. I have a genuine sense of “Why me?” in a good way.
“Your perfect will in your perfect way”: I know where to place my faith. That’s my privilege. That’s the gift given me. I have been known to meander and drift and goof up in both trivial and profound ways, but in the end I always come back to the right place, to the right person—the only person. Brother, Friend, Redeemer, Deliverer, King, Lord, Bridegroom, Father, Savior, Creator. I have been able to trust God with my “strands of sorrow.” I am under his wings and always will be.
In a way, it’s so unfair that I should be able to recognize Jesus for who he is when so many other people whom I respect and love don’t seem to either want to or be able to. I hear his voice and I just know he’s the Good Shepherd. To me, it’s a no-brainer. Faith is a gift, but it’s a free gift, and there are no exams to pass or morality assessments.
Our “strands of sorrow” are only a millimeter long on the rope disappearing off into the horizon where Robert invested his life. He taught and lived and died this “perfect wisdom.”
Thank you, Rachel.
D. A. Carson
D. A. Carson is emeritus professor of New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois, and founder and theologian-at-large of The Gospel Coalition.
Other Articles in this Issue
A Generous Reading of John Locke: Reevaluating His Philosophical Legacy in Light of His Christian Confessionby C. Ryan Fields
Locke is often presented as an eminent forerunner to the Enlightenment, a philosopher who hastened Europe’s departure from Christian orthodoxy and “turned the tide” toward a modern, secularist orientation...