Election, etc. — Seeing the Big Picture

In this first post directly addressing the subject, I will sketch the broad contours of my understanding of the doctrine of election. In later posts I will give more attention to the details.

More than we are often willing to acknowledge, the manner in which we approach the biblical text plays a critical role in determining the shape of our doctrine. Each reader of the text approaches the text heavily-laden with cultural baggage, much of which the reader is even unaware that he possesses. Bringing the assumptions, questions and methods of our modern culture to bear on the text, we are often in danger of silencing the text on the issues that most concern it. We risk twisting the teaching of Scripture out of shape as we seek to articulate its truths in frameworks that are in many respects alien to it.

There are times in our lives when the questions, assumptions and methods that we operate in terms of can radically alter. With a different set of questions, assumptions and methods texts that once seemed transparent proofs for our former position can take on a different complexion entirely.

My principal movement away from the traditional Reformed view has taken place at the level of questions, assumptions and methods. My exegetical differences with traditional Reformed positions are secondary and arise out of these more fundamental differences. I have little confidence in the value of arguing for my position by means of piecemeal exegesis, being of the opinion that most of the important questions are already addressed before we ever get down to exegesis.

I certainly intend to demonstrate that my position can make sense of the text of Scripture, but at the centre of my argument is a new ‘big picture’, rather than an exegetical argument. I am convinced that the various elements of biblical teaching will fit together far more smoothly if we work in terms of this big picture. My reasons for holding my position and rejecting traditional Reformed positions are primarily aesthetic. I have come to believe that traditional positions look incongruous and ugly when examined next to the biblical text. Even where they are technically correct, they have failed to identify the pulse of the biblical teaching, being preoccupied with concerns that are at best tangential to the concerns of the Scripture itself.

In formulating its doctrines of election, the questions that have been foremost in the Reformed tradition have generally been questions of individual soteriology. Whilst it certainly never denied the Second Coming, the General Resurrection and the New Heavens and the New Earth, Reformed theology has all too often tended to obscure these cosmic horizons behind the more constrictive horizons provided by ‘personal eschatology’. The most important questions for the Reformed tradition have generally had to do with the eternal fate of individuals. The broader ‘cosmic’ questions have often been regarded as secondary or derivative in relation to the questions of individual soteriology. In such a context it should not surprise us that Reformed doctrines of election tend to take the shape that they do.

The approach that I will be taking to the doctrine of election is one that has been informed by such theologians as N.T. Wright and James Jordan. Wright presents a persuasive picture of a cosmic purpose of God. God is in the business of putting the world to rights with His restorative justice. He is forming an international family for Abraham, to set right what Adam set wrong. However, cosmic purposes like setting the creation to rights and gathering all things together in Christ seem to be downplayed in Reformed circles. In their place there is great attention given to the divine purpose of saving a particular fixed number of predetermined individuals and condemning the rest of humanity. Almost everything else seems to be subordinated to this.

James Jordan argues for a divine purpose to bring the human race to maturity, a purpose that existed even before the Fall of mankind. In my experience this teaching is absent in most Reformed circles, where God’s purpose is almost exclusively thought of in terms of salvation from sin. By their very nature Reformed doctrines of election generally necessitate a decree of reprobation and a decree ordaining the Fall to accompany the electing decree. I have come to the conviction that there is no necessary connection between the decree of election and a decree of reprobation. The Fall was in no sense necessary for God to fulfil His purpose in election. God could have perfectly fulfilled His purpose of election in a world without sin.

What then is the decree of election? The decree of election is God’s determination to form the totus Christus — Christ, Head and body. The direct object of God’s election is not a particular eternally numbered set of individuals, but Christ Himself. The settled purpose that God is working towards is not the damnation of individual X and the salvation of individual Y, but the gathering together of all creation in His Son.

Those who find themselves in the body of Christ are not immediate and direct objects of God’s eternal election, but receive it as members of the body. We are not elect as detached individuals, but as members of Christ. In this respect our situation is very similar to that of the OT Israelite who was an elect person, but only by virtue of his membership in the elect nation.

If this is correct, there is nothing secret about the doctrine of election. It is all open and revealed. The doctrine of election is God’s determination, before the foundation of the world, to form a new glorified human family, to receive the adoption of sons in His Son. The specific members of this family are not the direct objects of God’s purpose (this does not mean that their coming into membership is left to chance or autonomous human choice). This is where Reformed theology has tended to go wrong, I believe.

God’s purpose is plainly revealed in Christ and it is good news for all. There is no room for doubt, speculation and fear. The objects of the doctrine of election are easily recognizable. They are the ‘in Christ’ people. There is no secret about their identity. They are those who have been baptized into His body.

This is the destiny that the human race was headed for before the Fall. Far from being necessary for the fulfilment of God’s electing decree, the Fall was a departure from God’s purpose for humanity. God’s purpose has never ceased to be cosmic in its proportions. God’s design is that of forming of a new creation and human race, not merely picking up some fragments of the old one. The doctrine of election need not be seen as a threat to anyone. In principle it doesn’t rule out anybody.

Such a perspective on election is only really possible when we reject the narrow, individualistic focus that Reformed theology has become accustomed to working in terms of. We must once again subordinate the salvation of the individual to a greater purpose that God has for His entire creation. I am firmly convinced that, once we do so, many untapped riches of Scripture will begin to reveal themselves to us and many formerly vexing problems will begin to dissolve.

About Alastair Roberts

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham University) writes in the areas of biblical theology and ethics, but frequently trespasses beyond these bounds. He participates in the weekly Mere Fidelity podcast, blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria, and tweets at @zugzwanged.
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19 Responses to Election, etc. — Seeing the Big Picture

  1. Jon says:

    I feel you’ve been a little hard on Reformed theology.

    1) Everyone has their own cultural background – which you say.
    2) Therefore, those formulating Reformed theology had that baggage too.
    3) However, just because they don’t clarify this (or arguably think that it doesn’t matter) doesn’t mean that we cannot listen to what they say.
    4) “Even where they are technically correct, they have failed to identify the pulse of the biblical teaching, being preoccupied with concerns that are at best tangential to the concerns of the Scripture itself.” is far too glib. To claim that the likes of Wright and Jordan have a better grasp of the ‘big picture’ of Scripture when compared with the likes of Calvin seems a little harsh to my ears. Whatever he may have got wrong, I fail to understand that his view of Scripture was ‘tangential’.
    5) How would you deal with the individuality of the argument of Paul in Romans and 1 Corinthians where he talks about one man leading to original sin and one man leading to resurrection etc.?

  2. T.B. Vick says:

    Very interesting thoughts. I have just a few questions about one statement you made . . .

    Al states:
    “The Fall was in no sense necessary for God to fulfil His purpose in election. God could have perfectly fulfilled His purpose of election in a world without sin.”

    Having read your entire post, I cannot see where you can make this claim and your own view merge or match with it. Sin seems necessary even in your notion of election as you have stated it in this post.

    Al continues:
    ” God’s purpose is plainly revealed in Christ and it is good news for all.”

    If there is no sin then there is no good news. The good news cannot possibly only be that “The doctrine of election is God’s determination, before the foundation of the world, to form a new glorified human family, to receive the adoption of sons in His Son.”

    How is this possible in a world without sin? Furthermore, in a world without sin, why is it necessary?

  3. Al says:


    1. Yes, which I say, from my own cultural background.

    3. I never claimed that we should not listen to what the Reformers say. We still have much to learn from them, even on issues like election. However, if we do not move beyond them in certain areas, we have failed them. Moving beyond them would be impossible if we had not already learned from them.

    4. To clarify, I was referring to the issue of election in particular. And, yes, I believe that Jordan and Wright have a better grasp of the big picture than Calvin. Great as Calvin is, I do not believe that he has a sufficient grasp of the covenant-historical / redemptive-historical shape of Scripture.

    5. I am not advocating some pure corporatism that ignores individuals. I am thinking in terms of the body and its members. Federal heads (quite a different thing entirely from individuals) have a very important part to play. My argument is that one of those two ‘corporate persons’ (Christ, Head and body) was the direct object of God’s electing decree.

  4. Al says:

    T.B. Vick,

    In response to your questions:

    As regards the possibility of the purpose of election being fulfilled apart from the Fall, my point is that no one need be condemned for God’s purpose of election to be fulfilled (no decree of reprobation). Nor does there have to be any sin in the world.

    I believe that election is God’s determination to form a worldwide family in Christ, with the full privileges of sons. Adam didn’t start out with the full privileges of a mature son.

    Part of my point is that there is a more fundamental story in Scripture, behind the story of salvation from sin. This more fundamental story is a story of the human race coming to maturity.

    The biblical story starts off with Adam naked in a garden. We don’t just wear clothing to cover our nakedness, but to glorify us. God is clothed with glory, even though He has no shameful nakedness to cover. Adam was naked because he was a baby (not biologically, but in terms of covenant history). The story of Scripture ends with mankind being clothed in the glory of the resurrection body.

    Adam started out under the tutelage of angels and being forbidden to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The story of Scripture speaks of mankind being exalted above the angels, to rule with God in the highest place (Hebrews 1-2) and of mankind growing into the knowledge of good and evil (the prohibition on the tree was temporary; the knowledge of good and evil is a good thing, but Adam and Eve weren’t ready for it).

    The story of Scripture starts off in a garden and speaks of precious resources outside the garden. The point is that mankind has to bring these in to glorify (clothe) the garden. At the end of Scripture we see a garden city, clothed with the whole creation, from gold (from the ground), to pearls (from the ocean).

    Scripture is a story of God’s people growing into the full rights and privileges of sonship. These privileges were held back from Adam until he was ready. He wanted to snatch them prematurely and was cast out. At the end of Scripture we see humanity having attained its maturity in Christ and having received the adoption of sons.

    As humanity grows up, its teaching is similar to that which any of us receive. If I learn the piano I have to start off with basic rules. Gradually I have internalized the rules and can apply wisdom, reaching the stage where I can even improvize a little. There then comes a stage where I can write my own pieces of music. We see this pattern in Scripture as we move from the Law, to the kingly books of wisdom, to the prophetic literature (prophets tear down old world orders and establish new ones with their words). The whole man comes in Christ. Christ is humanity come to it fullness.

    History is also a story of the maturation of humanity as the daughter who is to be the bride. The story of Scripture starts with a man who initiates history and ends with the marriage of the bride as the consummation of history.

    The story of Scripture is also a story of the growth of faith. As you read the text of Scripture you will recognize that each character is called to go beyond those who were before them in some way. Abraham inherits the story of faith prior to him, but must take it further. Same with Isaac, same with Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Samuel, David, etc. The story of faith is consummated when Faith in its fullness and maturity finally comes in Christ (Galatians 3:23-25; Hebrews 11:1—12:2).

    My point in all of this is that election has to do with God’s purpose to bring humanity into the fullness of life in Christ, not primarily with salvation from sin. Election has to do with the telos for which mankind was created — to be a bride for the Son, to enjoy the full rights and priviliges of sonship, etc.

    Christ would have come even if Adam had not sinned. Preparing humanity as a Bride for His Son was not God’s ‘Plan B’, nor was sin a necessary prerequisite for this purpose. Forming a glorified, mature humanity with the full privileges of sonship in Christ was always God’s intention.

    Mankind’s maturation process has been a lot more painful than it would have been had Adam not sinned, but there still would have been a maturation process.

    God’s election would still have been gracious and necessary had Adam not sinned. [Much of which we are apt to classify under ‘soteriology’ doesn’t necessarily entail salvation from anything at all (e.g. election, adoption, glorification, even sanctification and justification).] It would have been so because the election was to the privileged status of the full rights of sonship. It was also God’s election of a humanity as a Bride for His Son. Such election does not presuppose sin at all.

    It also seems to me to be very good news.

    I hope that that helps to answer your question.

  5. T.B. Vick says:

    Al, I can sort of see what you are getting at, but there is way too many gaps in your doctrine of election if you eliminate sin, or say it is possible without sin. For instance, the need for the Law, fullfillment of the Law by Christ, etc. Moreover, obviously God intended sin to be a part of His election lest it would not have occured.

    Anyway, your answers raise more questions than they answer, so I’ll wait for your subsequent posts and maybe that will answer a few more questions that I have.

    Al states:
    “[Much of which we are apt to classify under ’soteriology’ doesn’t necessarily entail salvation from anything at all (e.g. election, adoption, glorification, even sanctification and justification).]”

    I agree but all are enveloped around a harmartiology.

  6. pduggie says:

    I’m wondering why its necessary to specify that God’s ‘direct’ concern in the decree is with a corporate entity over against any particular individual. I woudld think that God could regard both the corporate and individual in a direct fashion, neither one with primacy over the other.

    He is one and three, after all.

  7. Al says:


    My argument is that God is directly concerned with a particular person in His decree of election. The election is not of a faceless corporate entity. Rather, it is the election of Christ as the corporate person, the One who sums up the Many in Himself.

    My concern is that election be mediated. If we are the direct objects of election then election is hidden, unknown and potentially terrifying. If our election is the election of the corporate person Christ, then election is revealed.

    It is similar, I believe, to the situation in the OT. Being a chosen person was a matter of being an heir of Abraham. The heirs of Abraham were clearly identifiable. They were not the direct objects of election themselves, but received a mediated election. The election was an election of Abraham and those in him.

    God is undoubtedly sovereign over who comes to be in the family of Abraham or the body of Christ. However, I see no biblical justification for the general Reformed assumption that the individual to be saved is a direct object of election, rather than one who receives a mediated election in Christ.

    God is forming a family, which is not merely a collection of individuals. The fundamental identity of this family derives, not from its individual members, but from its Head, in whom the whole family is summed up. Whilst the Church contains a particular set of individuals, it could hypothetically contain a totally different set of individuals and still be the Church. What makes the Church the Church is not a particular set of individual members. The same is true of Israel. The members that constituted the nation of Israel were not essential to Israel’s identity.

    As regards the one and the many issue, I believe that the One (Christ) and the many (us) within the Church are mutually constitutive. However, I do not believe that it is helpful to regard the ‘many’ within this relationship as a particular set of definite individuals and no others. I do not believe that it is true that the One and the many in the Church are equally ultimate if by that we imply that we are the direct objects of election in the same manner as Christ (the One).

    The fixed point from which the Church derives its identity is Christ and only Christ. The presence of no other person is necessary to the Church’s existence. I believe that God’s purpose in election was that of forming the Church and I believe that regarding the particular individuals who will constitute the Church at the end of time as essential to this purpose leads us to a very unhelpful and speculative conception of the Church. I believe that it is without biblical warrant.

  8. Al says:

    T.B. Vick,

    You write,

    “Al, I can sort of see what you are getting at, but there is way too many gaps in your doctrine of election if you eliminate sin, or say it is possible without sin. For instance, the need for the Law, fullfillment of the Law by Christ, etc. Moreover, obviously God intended sin to be a part of His election lest it would not have occured.”

    I am not sure that I understand you here, particularly the later part. Would you be able to flesh out what you mean and I will try to ensure that I deal with it in future posts.

  9. pduggie says:

    “The presence of no other person is necessary to the Church’s existence”

    I toyed with such an idea awhile back, contemplating how Jermiah 31 could be fulfilled if Jesus were the sole one to never apostasize. Thus, even if everyone were lost, God’s word declaring that the new covenant is unbreakable (unlike the old) would stand firm.

    But you can’t have a messiah without people to represent. The presence a body of individuals is as necessary to the Church’s existence as her prepresentative.

    And while traditional texts for limited atonement (I lay down my life for my sheep, “I have lost none of those you have given me”) might be wanting in a some senses, they seem to continue to affirm that particular people are called by God, and this is part of his plan. The biblical use of “election” might not cover God’s sovereign purpose in getting them into the kingdom, but I’m not troubled by diveristy between biblcial and theological uses of terms.

  10. Al says:


    My point in that statement was not that the Church would be just fine as a disembodied Head. I don’t hold that position. As you say, you can’t have a Messiah without people to represent. What I do hold is that the particular people who come to form the members of the body is a matter of indifference relative to God’s electing purpose. God could fulfil His purpose of election with a different group entirely.

    God is certainly sovereign in determining who the people who will be called are. However, I do not see the particular identity of these people as an essential element of the electing purpose of God itself.

    The verse that you point out from John’s gospel is one that I intend to treat sometime. I believe that the sheep that have been given to Christ should be understood as the members of the Church, not as people elected as detached individuals before the foundation of the world. Christ preserves the members of the Church. However, the same Father who sovereignly draws people to Christ and entrusts them to Him also takes people from Christ, as we see in the image of the Vine and the Branches. Such imagery in John’s gospel is ecclesial. Christ chooses people, but He also chooses people who He knows will apostatize.

    When Christ lays down His life for the sheep, He does not lay down His life for particular individuals who were the direct objects of election before the foundation of time. Rather, He dies for those whom the Father has committed to Him in the course of His earthly ministry — the new Israel that is already being formed around Him.

  11. Alex says:

    If I may just make a brief remark on history.

    The mediaevals debated the question as to whether or not sin was “necessary” for the Incarnation to occur, and so on one side, the Dominicans (lead by the original mold Thomist himself, Tommy A.) argued that sin was a necessary condition on the realization of the great good that was the Incarnation. Hence, Tommy A.’s cry of “O felix culpa!” (O happy sin).

    On the other side of the debate were the Franciscans, and their champion in J.D. Scotus. he argued that sin was not necessary for the Incarnation to happen, and moreover that the Incarnation would have happened anyway if Adam and Eve hadn’t fallen.

    I must say that my sympathies are with Scotus on this issue. I have a semi-worked out view on soul making, which sees Adam and Eve as created in a state of perfect goodness but not perfection simpliciter. They still needed Jesus for that, though not necessarily for redemption.

  12. Scott says:

    Alex, is that because you think Adam and Eve still needed to “grow up”? (I’m thinking in terms of James Jordan theology.)

  13. Alex S says:


    The comment you made in regard to the Reformed doctrine of predetermination that hit the nail on the head for me was, “Almost everything else seems subordinated to this.” I think this comment really gets to the heart of the issue. When I talk to other Reformed persons, every biblical passage is interpreted through the filter of this one. Every other doctrine is seen through the lense of this one. This is measuring stick by which all other doctrines are judged. You might say it is the sixth sola of the reformation, i.e. sola sovereingty or something like that. I have started to write about this a bit in my blog (in which I write about N.T. Wright and others I am reading) and will be getting further into the subject in the future.

    Thanks for the great post!

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  16. Hammertime says:

    Hmm. That is supposed to be a trackback, not a comment. Lesson learned on trackbacks, I guess!

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