by Jason Micheli
1 Peter 1.1-3 (click to see Scripture text)
Church signs have been a pet peeve of mine ever since I served my first church in Princeton, New Jersey. During a church council meeting, the lay leaders considered changing the style of the worship service from traditional to contemporary. When those same lay leaders and their fool of a rookie pastor subsequently made the mistake of actually sharing this idea with the congregation, well, let’s just say, I had no choice but to go outside one weekday and paint over the tagline on the sign that read, “The Friendly Church.”
I didn’t want to get sued for false advertising.
You see slogans and catch-phrases like, “The Friendly Church,” all over church signs.
An open and inclusive church.
A welcoming church.
An affirming church.
A Bible-believing church.
A praying church.
A justice-seeking church.
A church that leaves no gerunds behind.
Just yesterday, I drove by a church whose sign described it as “a church who loves its community and serves the world.” Sounds great, right? You never see a church sign that says,“People barely making it, trying to make it together” or “Sinners, struggling together” or “A church that worships a savior because we’re beyond self-help.”
The problem with so many church signs and value statements and website slogans is that they all almost always point to our works (“A Life-Changing Church”) when, in fact, the Church itself is the mysterious and gracious work of Almighty God. To be God’s People— to be a Christian, for that matter— is never a matter of human achievement and, therefore, it can never be grounds for boasting in ourselves or judging others. For God’s People are not constituted naturally or, even, voluntarily, but are brought into being by God’s election.
You, Church, have been called into existence by God’s choosing— by God enacting in time a determination God made before all time.
“Eklektos” is the word Peter uses in his epistle.
Eklektos has the force of a verb.
Election is what God does in history as the outworking of God’s eternal determination.
Writing to the believers scattered across the Diaspora, the Apostle Peter addresses the Church as those “chosen and predestined by God the Father.”
The King James Version calls the Church “the elect according to the foreknowledge of God the Father.”
It’s what the Apostle Paul describes when he tells the Corinthians that the Gospel message is “a secret and hidden wisdom of God, which God decreed before the ages for our glorification.”
“God “eklektos” us in Him,” Paul writes to the Church in Ephesus, “God chose us in Him before the foundation of the world…He elected us in love (that is, he predestined us) to be His people through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of His Will.”
The Church of Jesus Christ is no different than Israel. As the Book of Deuteronomy confesses, Israel did not search out and seek the Lord. Israel was nothing but “a wandering Aramean” until the moment when the Living God moved and enacted His eternal decree to be the God of Israel.
And, here you thought you had invited Jesus into your heart. No, proclaim Peter and Paul, your decision to follow Jesus was made actual only by God’s prior, preexistent decision to elect you to be His witness. Here you were under the impression that you chose to be a part of Christ’s Church— good on you, gold star, right? No, sorry, says Peter, as he rips away from you any basis for self-congratulation.
You were chosen.
And long before you’d done anything to earn or deserve it.
As far back as when all there was— the Word who was with God.
Come on, what are we supposed to do with this notion that all our doings as the Church of Jesus Christ are in fact the fruit of God’s doing?
Is that good news?
John Piper is pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church in the Twin Cities. He’s a steroidal Calvinist and a popular author and speaker. To be honest, his work engenders feelings I normally reserve for Joel Osteen, Jerry Falwell Jr., most members of Congress, and, of course, Verizon Wireless.
On August 1, 2007, the Interstate 35 Bridge over the Mississippi River near downtown Minneapolis collapsed during rush hour. Thirteen people died. Nearly one hundred and fifty people were injured.
In response to the fatalities, John Piper taught that the bridge collapse was not an awful tragedy, but a Devine Decision. It was not an unfortunate example of the vicissitudes of life. It was a predestined example of God’s power.
It was not an accident.
It was election.
Who needs a Crucified Savior when God has more effective tools in his arsenal to reveal himself and get our attention?
Like bridges collapsing and contagions.
Last month, John Piper said the coronavirus is “the bitter outworking of God’s electing providence.” Just like the plagues God sends upon Egypt in the Book of Exodus, Almighty God, according to his foreknowledge, decreed COVID-19.
John Piper sees the electing hand of God behind the horrific so often, you’re left to wonder. If a tragedy happens and John Piper doesn’t use it as an opportunity to remind us of the doctrine of election, did it really happen?
Admit it, this is the sort of Christianity we associate with words like election, foreknowledge, and predestination.
In a 2003 sermon, “Pastoral Thoughts on the Doctrine of Election,” Piper preached that election “is the teaching that God chose, before the foundation of the world, who would believe in Jesus Christ and so be saved and who would reject Jesus Christ and so be deservingly cast away. God has chosen some to come to faith and be saved while God has elected others to suffer wrath.”
All this is to display God’s sovereignty, Piper explained, before concluding his sermon— I kid you not— by saying, “The doctrine of election is not mainly a doctrine to be argued about, but a doctrine to be enjoyed.”
“Do you feel,” he asked his listeners, “the assurance-producing gospel force in the word “elect?””
But, is this what the Apostle Peter means when he addresses the scattered Church as “the elect according to the foreknowledge of God the Father?”
Does Peter mean to say that they are the lucky ones whom God has chosen from before Creation itself to confess that Jesus Christ is Lord and so be saved for no other reason than to display God’s majesty and might? And does Peter mean to suggest by implication then to the rest of you, who maybe still pray with your fingers crossed (or maybe don’t pray at all), Sorry, but the odds aren’t ever going to be in your favor. You’ve been volunteered as tribute?
Karl Barth by contrast said that word here in 1 Peter 1 “eklektos” is the very sum of the Gospel, the Gospel in nuce, the distilled essence of all good news. Barth wrote the fourth volume of his massive Church Dogmatics on the Doctrine of Election. In the preface, Barth called it “emergency theology for dark times.”
Having been exiled from Nazi Germany to Switzerland, Barth wrote his volume on the electing God in 1940 and 1941 during the apex of Hitler’s power.
“When the sky turns black and the times turn dark,” Barth wrote, “all our comfort and all our defiance depends on our understanding anew that God has bound Himself to humanity, and specifically to sinful humanity…God determines Himself free for fellowship with this sinful humanity and thereby determines humanity to be in fellowship with Him and all whom God loves.”
In other words, Jesus Christ is the Elect. He’s the one chosen for salvation from before the foundation of the world— and all of us is in Him. And He’s the one rejected, chosen for wrath— and all of our sins in Him. He is the one predestined to bear both God’s “Yes” and God’s “No”.
Eklektos is good news for dark, emergency times, because election is a shorthand reminder that in Jesus Christ, God has determined to be with us and for us. No, not even that puts the matter strongly enough. In Jesus Christ, the eternal Son of God, the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, God has elected NOT TO BE GOD WITHOUT US.
Think about that:
The incarnation is not an “In Case of Emergency, Break Glass” Plan B.
God has elected eternally to limit Himself, so as to include us.
Election is not about exclusion. Election does not name some arcane, pretemporal decree by which God groups his creatures into categories of “saved” and “damned.”
Election unpacks the implications of what John asserts at the beginning of his Gospel, “In the beginning was Emmanuel, God-with-us, and God-with-us was with God, and God-with-us was God. He was in the Beginning with God. All things came into being through Him, and without Him not one thing came into being.”
If God-with-us goes all the way back before the stars were hung in the sky or the Big Bang was spoken into existence, election names the process by which all of us will in the fullness of time be with God.
If God-with-us is the God God has chosen to be, then election is the way God gets what God wants.
Behind that word “eklektos” is the recognition that given an infinite array of chances and opportunities, we will always choose to be our own lords. Left to our own devices that voice, “Did God really say?” will tempt us away every time. Those women on Easter morning— they’re just the first ones to run away and hide from the Risen Lord.
So, the God who has elected not to be God without us— that God elects some, in places like Pontus and Galatia, Cappadocia, and the District of Columbia, to bear witness so that God might draw all unto Himself.
The Church of Jesus Christ is no different than Israel.
Chosen-ness is about vocation.
Incidentally, this is why you never need to leave worship worrying about what you must do now for the Lord. Almighty God will show you. As the Apostle Paul tells the Ephesians, those who are elect for Jesus Christ— God has already prepared their good works for them.
God who has elected you will put a good work before you.
Election has less to do with what John Piper makes of collapsing bridges and contagions and, instead, looks more like Flannery O’Connor’s short story, Revelation.
The story is set in a doctor’s office waiting room in a little town in the Jim Crow South. Ruby Turpin is an overweight, self-righteous racist (who thinks she’s not racist) who enters with her husband Claude and quickly begins sizing everyone else up— she even judges the shoes everyone is wearing.
Ruby compares herself to the well-dressed pleasant lady, to a grandmother and a grandchild who appeared “vacant and white trashy,” to a red-headed girl who “was not white-trashy, just common,” and to a fat, ugly eighteen year old girl named Mary Grace, who reads a book entitled Human Development and, looking over the book, scowls at Mrs. Turpin as she holds forth for all to hear on the relative goodness of poor black workers compared to “poor white trash.”
Mrs. Turpin prattles on out loud like that, giving God thanks that God didn’t make her black or poor white trash when, suddenly— like she was chosen for just such a role—Mary Grace hurls the huge book across the waiting room, cold cocking Ruby Turbin upside the head. The blow lays Ruby sprawled out on floor where Mary Grace climbs on top of her and hisses, “Go back to hell where you belong, you old wart hog.”
Later than night, Ruby Turpin takes her bruised forehead out to feed the hogs on her farm. Still smarting from Mary Grace’s words, Ruby stares up at the dusk sky and shouts, “ “What do you send me a message like that for? “How am I a hog and me both? How am I saved and from hell too?”
“Why me?” she rumbled. “It’s no trash around here, black or white, that I haven’t given to. And break my back to the bone every day, working. And do for the church.”
“In the deepening light everything was taking on a mysterious hue,” Flannery O’ Connor writes, “The pasture was growing a particular glassy green and the streak of the highway had turned lavender. She braced herself for a final assault and this time her voice rolled out over the pasture. “Go on,” she yelled, “Call me a hog! Call me a hog again. From hell. Call me a wart hog from hell. Put that bottom rail on top. There’ll still be a top and bottom!”
And then, O’ Connor writes, “a visionary light settled in Ruby’s eyes. She saw a vast swinging bridge extending upward from the earth through a field of Living Fire. Upon it a vast horde of souls were tumbling toward heaven. There were whole companies of white trash, clean for the first time in their lives, and bands of black folks in white robes, and battalions of freaks and lunatics shouting and clapping and leaping like frogs.”
“And bringing up the end of the procession was a tribe of people whom she recognized at once as those who, like herself and Claud, had always had a little of everything and the given wit to use it right. She leaned forward to observe them closer. They were marching behind the others with great dignity, accountable as they had always been for good order and common sense and respectable behavior. They alone were on key.”
“Yet she could see by their shocked and altered faces even their virtues were being burned away. Ruby lowered her hands and gripped the rail of the hog pen, her eyes small but fixed unblinkingly on what lay ahead. In a moment the vision faded, but she remained where she was. At length, she got down and turned off the faucet and in her slow way went on the darkening path to the house.”
“In woods around her, the invisible cricket choruses had struck up, but what she heard were the voices of the souls climbing upward into the starry field and shouting “hallelujah.”
A vision of the Kingdom and her place in it, all because God elected someone like Mary Grace to draw someone like Ruby Turpin unto himself.
It’s not as impressive as bridges collapsing or contagions, and it won’t fit on a sign or make much sense at the top of letterhead, but the way Almighty God has elected to get the world’s attention is through you.
The Risen Christ has elected some; that is, you, the Church, to give shocked and altered faces to all.
This is why your faith isn’t something to take lightly.
You’ve been chosen, from before the foundation of the world, to knock the world upside the head with this strange, big book.
Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, To the exiles of the Dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia, 2who have been chosen and destined by God the Father and sanctified by the Spirit to be obedient to Jesus Christ and to be sprinkled with his blood: May grace and peace be yours in abundance.
3Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.