I’m reading Eugene Peterson’s memoir, “The Pastor” these days. It’s an excellent book, and quite timely for my own soul. There is so much that I would like to share, but what I just read struck me as especially poignant.

In a letter to a pastor friend who was pursuing a career in the megachurch world, Eugene wrote,

Classically, there are three ways in which humans try to find transcendence [God meaning]…apart from God as revealed in the cross of Jesus: through the ecstasy of alcohol and drugs, through the ecstasy of recreational sex, through the ecstasy of crowds. Church leaders frequently warn against the drugs and the sex, but, at least in America, almost never against the crowds. …But a crowd destroys the spirit as thoroughly as excessive drink and depersonalized sex.

What do you think of his diagnosis? Are crowds really as bad for the soul as drunkenness and fornication? He continued in the same letter,

I really do feel that crowds are a worse danger, far worse, than drink or sex, and pastors may be the only people on the planet who are in a position to encourage an imagination that conceives of congregation strategically not in terms of its size but as a congenial setting for becoming mature in Christ in a community, not a crowd.

What is the difference between a community and a crowd? Can a person become mature in Christ in a crowd?

I’ve been working my way through a Bible reading plan this year, and for the first time in my life I’ve actually stuck with it for longer than 3 days! The plan has you read four chapters from four different books–two in the NT and two in the OT–as you work your way through each book. There have been several days where the themes of the various chapters have been remarkably consistent, and today was one of those days.

This morning, two of the chapters that I read were Exodus 33 and John 12. I’ll quote a selection from each:

And the Lord said, “I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you, and I will proclaim my name, the Lord, in your presence. I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion.” (Ex. 33:19)

“If anyone hears my words but does not keep them, I do not judge that person. For I did not come to judge the world, but to save the world.” (John 12:47)

Isn’t it amazing what God says in that Exodus quote? “I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy…”; and then we probably expect him to say something like, “…and I will condemn whom I will condemn.” But he doesn’t say that. Instead, he says, “…and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion.” God speaks of himself in terms of mercy and compassion, and the verbiage of condemnation is absent.

Then you have the verse in John where Jesus says, “For I did not come to judge the world, but to save the world.” Jesus didn’t picture his mission as one of judgment or condemnation, but rather as one of salvation. (See also, John 3:17) Truly remarkable, isn’t it?

Now, we know that judgment is coming for all of us, but it’s important to see that the Bible testifies that the first word is mercy, compassion, and salvation. That is the first word. That is the loudest word. That is the strongest word. Judgment is coming, of course, but not until God’s mercy, compassion, and salvation have run their course. Jesus goes on to say in John 12 that all who reject his words (i.e., the gospel message) will be judged by those words, and ultimately condemned by them. Sadly, there can be no salvation for those who reject Jesus’ word of salvation. If you reject the word of salvation, then all that is left is the word of condemnation.

But Jesus is committed to saving you; he is not committed to condemning you. Maybe you need to hear that today because it sure doesn’t seem true. All you’ve ever heard is that Jesus is coming and he’s going to throw all the unbelievers into hell. Jesus’ mission is not condemnation. It’s salvation. It’s grace. We Christians don’t often live that truth out. Maybe we need to hear that today, too. Jesus doesn’t want to crush you, destroy you, or throw you into the pit of eternal hellfire. What he wants–what he really, really wants–is to save you. He wants that so bad that he was willing to lay down his divine rights, become a homeless peasant, and suffer death on a cruel Roman cross so that he could live life as you live it, and speak to you that word of mercy, compassion, and salvation. Salvation is the free gift of God; condemnation is the end result of your rejection of God, who has exhausted every avenue in his relentless love for you.

Salvation is the word for today. I hope you hear him speaking to you. I hope you can come to terms with your sin and rebellion, set that aside, and trust in Jesus rather than in your own goodness, success, or intelligence. Jesus desperately wants to save you from sin, evil, and death. I hope that you can receive today’s word.

For anyone who has been a Christian for a decent amount of time, that person is familiar with the old debate between predestination and free will. Does God decide who gets saved, or do we embrace God and receive salvation because of that choice? To put it simply, do we choose God or does God choose us? This may seem like an arcane point of theology that has no bearing in real life, but, as a friend of mine said last night, it profoundly shapes your view of God. Let me briefly lay out the two sides of the argument.

Predestination

This is often called the “Reformed” view, or “Calvinist” perspective. Basically, people who hold this view believe that God has predetermined those people who will be saved. In other words, he has elected some to spend eternity with him in heaven. This election has no basis on the individual’s behavior or morality, but is wholly based on the grace of God. Because God is completely holy, and because we are utterly sinful (totally depraved), we cannot choose to follow God or believe in him of our own will. That is to say, we are too sinful to humble ourselves, repent of our sins, and place our faith in Christ. This faith must be a gift from God, flowing out of his grace. The elect are those to whom this faith has been given.

Free Will

This is often called the “Arminian” perspective. People who believe in free will understand humans to have a choice in whether they repent of their sins and place their faith in Jesus Christ. God’s will is for all people to be saved, but, out of his gracious humility, he has left the choice of faith to us. He calls us to follow him, and we can freely embrace him or reject him. God compels no one to choose him against their will; rather, he honors human beings as free moral agents created in his image. God’s grace comes as both a gift and an offer, the intended response to which is faith. Everyone who accepts this offer will be saved.

•••••••••••••••

These are two very brief sketches, and I hope that I’ve done justice to each perspective. I fall into the free will camp, but have often felt the weakness of the Arminian position in its poor explanation (or total lack thereof) of election. In what follows I’d like to begin an attempt at explaining what election means.

In order to understand biblical election, we have to set aside the medieval notion of the subject, namely that God has elected certain individuals for salvation and others for damnation. This is unhelpful and anachronistic. Understanding election means going back to the source, and discovering in the Scriptures what is meant by this controversial term.

What did election mean for Jesus? In fact, election was a core tenant of Jesus’ faith. As N.T. Wright has shown, Jesus fully believed in election, though not in the same way in which we define it today. Jesus believed that the creator God has intended, from the very beginning, to address and deal with the problems of creation through Israel. When everything went wrong in Adam–when sin and death entered the world through him–God intended to set everything aright through Abraham and his descendants.

Israel was chosen by God to be the instrument by which sin and death would be undone, and everything in creation would be set to rights. Israel was The Elect. Unfortunately, Israel failed to live up to their high calling. They failed to be The Elect. In steps Jesus, to be the Israel that Israel could never be, and to do what Israel was always meant to do–set the world to rights by atoning for sin and conquering death. In other words, Jesus is The Elect. He has done what The Elect were elected to do.

Any understanding of election must begin with Israel and move then to Jesus. This, rather than individualistic predestination, is the biblical view of election.

Because Jesus is The Elect, all who have faith in him are The Elect in him. Election is not an arbitrary divine choice, but rather a new reality and identity bestowed on all who obey Jesus’ command to believe in him. Salvation is the gift of God, and election is the new reality brought about by the reception of that gift.

God has not, as some would contend, elected some for salvation and, therefore, others for damnation. Instead, God has elected his Son to right the wrongs of the world by atoning for sin and conquering death through his own crucifixion and resurrection. All who confess Jesus as King are saved and become a part of The Elect in Christ because they have become a part of Christ through faith. Their task becomes the task of The Elect: Announcing to the world that Jesus Christ has atoned for sin through his death and conquered death through his resurrection.

Biblical election, therefore, is a new reality that comes with a very old mission. Live, then, as The Elect, announcing and enacting the gospel of Jesus Christ.

If you’ve ever been a leader, then you’ve probably had somebody question your leadership. “Why do you get to choose? What makes you better than us? You can’t tell me what to do! You’re a hypocrite!” More often than not, this goes on behind your back, and you may never even hear about it. Truth is, if you’ve ever been led, you’ve done this to your leaders.

I asked my wife a few years ago what kind of emotions the word authority stirred up in her, and she said, “Only bad”. Authority is a bad word. We don’t want other people to have authority over us. We relentlessly look for hypocrisy in our leaders and immediately call them on the carpet for it. We instinctively distrust anyone in a position of authority.

What do you do when someone questions your leadership? Your character? Your motives? It’s the easiest thing in the world to abuse the power you’ve been given as a leader. One way we do this is to silence opposition, to crush those who question you and tear them to pieces.

When you feel tempted to use your authority in destructive ways, remember that any authority or leadership you have over others has been given to you by God. When speaking of his authority in the church at Corinth, Paul described it this way: The authority the Lord gave me for building you up, not for tearing you down. Paul understood that God granted him authority in the churches so that he would build them up, not tear them down. God intends for power to be used constructively. He has authorized you to build others, not to destroy them.

Leaders (and that includes pastors, business leaders, parents, teachers, etc.), you may want to unleash the full power of your fury on someone under your leadership, but you must not. You may be tempted to defend yourself at the expense of someone else’s reputation, but you must resist. It’s up to you to show those under your leadership what it means to lay down your life, to refuse your rights, and to build up others at the expense of your own reputation and vindication. God has only authorized you to build.

I always enjoy getting comments on my blog entries, but most especially from Preston, who always thoughtfully and winsomely pushes back when he sees the need. Yesterday, he left a comment on my post Jesus > Heaven, part of which said:

I can almost accept sending Gandhi to Hell for not taking the step of putting his faith in Christ, a figure with whom he was obviously familiar. But what of the child in a third world country who simply never heard? This question is a tired cliche, but I’m curious where you stand. Is that why we are called to make disciples if the nations? If so, the blame for the eternal fiery torture of all the unevangelized people groups I haven’t yet personally reached is on my head, making me deserve Hell more than any sin I could ever imagine committing. I can’t imagine there being no tears in heaven knowing that I had been such a tragic failure yet got in because I knew the owner.

This is a great reflection on that ever-pressing question, “What happens to everybody who hasn’t heard the gospel? Do they go to hell?” I’d like to tie together three passages from the New Testament that will help us on the way toward an answer to this question.

The first is John 15:22. If I had not come and spoken to them, they would not be guilty of sin; but now they have no excuse for their sin. Because Jesus only preached the gospel to the Jewish residents of Israel (with a few exceptions), he is clearly talking about the Jewish people that rejected him–namely, the religious authorities. But there is a principle at work here: Those to whom Jesus has not spoken are not held accountable for their sin. As we stretch that out across space and time, I think it’s safe to say that, those to whom Jesus has not spoken through the Church (which is his body on earth) will not be judged as those to whom he has spoken. It’s common sense, really. If you haven’t heard of Jesus or the gospel, then God won’t hold that against you.

The second is Romans 3:25-26. God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood—to be received by faith. He did this to demonstrate his righteousness, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished—he did it to demonstrate his righteousness at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus. Paul seems to be saying that God has not meted out judgment upon those who lived before Jesus, which implies that, somehow, there must still be hope for them. But how?

This brings me to the third verse, 1 Peter 3:18-20. For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive in the Spirit. After being made alive, he went and made proclamation to the imprisoned spirits—to those who were disobedient long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built. This is definitely one of those, “What the heck does that mean?” verses. I don’t want to speculate too much, but it seems to imply that Jesus, after resurrecting from the dead, was somehow able to preach the gospel to those who lived and died before he came.

Tying these verses together, I think we can draw some conclusions:

  1. God is just.
  2. No one will be condemned to hell because they never had the opportunity to hear the gospel.
  3. Everyone will have the opportunity to hear the gospel eventually.

This is a mystery to me. What happens to the poor child in the third-world country who has never even heard of Jesus? Well, we should do everything we can to tell him about Jesus. But, if we can’t reach him in time, perhaps, sometime between death and resurrection, Jesus himself will preach the good news to him. Maybe this life isn’t our only opportunity to repent and turn to Jesus. It clearly wasn’t for those imprisoned souls to whom Jesus preached.