Hospitality in the Doctrine of Election
Published by Mary L. Vanden Berg
Professor of Systematic Theology
There are few topics in Reformed theology that cause as much general angst as the doctrine of election. At least this is true in my classroom. Everything is fairly comfortable as we cruise through the fine points of salvation until we get to the question of election. Regardless of whether we consider double or single predestination, the idea that God chooses some and not others doesn’t sit very well with many people. It seems, at least on the surface, that leaving the choice to us would be preferable. But would it?
The doctrine of election states that before the creation of the world, God ordained some for eternal life and passed over others. The idea of God’s sovereign choice arises from biblical texts like Ephesians 1, “For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his son” (v. 4). This choosing or predestination is done out of God’s love through Christ, in whom we become God’s beloved adopted children (v. 5). A similar teaching can be found in Romans 9.
The beauty of God’s sovereign choice in election is that it emphasizes our complete inability to save ourselves, and God’s immeasurable grace in choosing those who would not, on their own, choose him. Prior to God’s grace invading our lives, we are like the abandoned, unwashed, naked newborn in Ezekiel’s allegory about Israel (Ez. 16). We are helpless, unable to do anything to bring ourselves into a personal relationship with God. Recognizing human inability to choose God, John Calvin makes clear that we are not elect because of anything we have done, or because we are more holy than others. We are neither holy nor deserving of God’s grace. Rather, we are elect to be holy (Eph. 1:4) for the purpose of doing good works (Eph. 2:10), works that ultimately bring praise and glory to God.
This is not an isolated teaching but follows a more general pattern throughout Scripture. We see it, for example, in God’s call to Abram in Gen. 12. God tells Abram to leave Haran where he is comfortable, and follow God “to the land I will show you.” This command in itself is quite disconcerting. I can imagine myself wanting to know where we were headed, what route we would take, what it would be like in that place. Would the land be good? Would the weather be nice? Maybe I would look it up on Google Maps or Wikipedia to try to find out more about where I was supposed to be going. Of course we have no record of what Abram thought. What we do know is that he obediently left, “as the LORD had told him (v. 4).” We also know that God blessed him, promising to make him into a great nation, to make his name great, and, significantly, to bless all the people on earth through him (v. 2-3). Abram is called into a relationship with God and blessed in order to be a source of blessing to all nations. Abram will begin the restoration of God’s original blessing on all humans in Gen. 1. The election and blessing of Abram and his descendants, in other words, has outward momentum toward serving the world.
One way to consider this service is through the lens of hospitality. Cornelius Plantinga suggests that hospitality is making room for someone and helping that person flourish in that room. Creation entails God making space in the Divine economy for humans, giving us what we need to flourish, and most importantly, giving us a place to live in God’s own presence. After our rejection of the boundaries of that original space, God once again makes provisions for us to flourish in his presence by calling a people to be his own who will mediate God’s blessing to the world. We see a glimpse of God’s people blessing the world in Joseph, whose wise service in Egypt results in all the countries of the world being fed during a famine (Gen. 41:57). The one true mediator of the blessing is revealed, however, in the incarnation.
In the incarnation we have the opportunity to see the hospitality of God in action through the life and work of Jesus Christ. Jesus’s life exemplifies both the opening up of himself to others, and the pouring himself out for others that is a hallmark of hospitality. In Christ, God opened himself to the world in a new way, taking on human flesh and blood, experiencing what we experience, pouring himself out for us so that we could be blessed through him (Phil. 2:6-11). Our representation of God to the world must be modeled on this sort of opening up and pouring out for the sake of blessing others. God’s election of us is for the purpose of blessing those around us. We are not elect to be like the priest and Levite who found reasons to ignore the wounded man on the side of the road. We are elect to bless the wounded, the prisoner, the immigrant, the refugee through expending ourselves on their behalf. More precisely, we are elect for hospitality toward others that represents God’s hospitality toward us.
The implications of this are numerous. At the very least, we have no need to sit and wonder about who is elect and who is not. That question is irrelevant along with the question of why God chooses some and not others. What is relevant to daily life is that the elect are called to serve; that the fruit of election is self-giving hospitality. This self-expenditure will include providing for the physical needs, like the Samaritan did with the wounded man, but also inviting others into relationship with God, the source of all blessing.
The doctrine of election not only calls God’s people to a life of hospitality, but also reflects God’s hospitality toward us. Herman Bavinck writes about election that “at bottom the Reformed confessions are more magnanimous and broader in outlook than any other Christian confession.” The reason for this, he writes, is because the Reformed confessions “locate the ultimate and most profound source of salvation solely in God’s good pleasure, in his eternal compassion, in his unfathomable mercy, in the unsearchable riches of his grace, grace that is both omniscient and free.” Or, to sum up, we could say election is located in God’s perfect hospitality, a hospitality that we are called to reflect.
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