Letter to a Calvinist Parishioner

Our Sunday morning series at Calvary this fall is “Chosen: Verse-by-Verse Through Ephesians.”  As I have been spending a lot of time preparing for this series in the middle of a very busy fall ministry schedule, I have had little time to write. So – I thought I would reprint a copy of a letter I sent to one of my favorite theological pen pals at Calvary (His name will remain anonymous). The question was related to my emphasis on Sunday mornings that the doctrine of election (being Chosen) was intended to inform Gentiles, who felt like “Johnny-come-latelys” in the salvation story, that they were not “afterthoughts.”  "No" – Paul tells them.  "You were chosen before the creation of the world (Ephesians 1:4)." This thoughtful parishioner asked, “Isn’t the purpose of the doctrine to make much of God – and His glory?” For those of you who love theological discussion, here is my short (edited) response: 

“On your comments about election – I don’t think I disagree with you – though I might ‘word’ it differently.  The ultimate purpose of the doctrine is (in the words of Paul) ‘the praise of his glorious grace’ (Ephesians 1:3-14, passim).  This is OUR purpose – and how the doctrine ULTIMATELY functions in the text.  However, it is not the only function of the doctrine.  There is a penultimate (or secondary) function for this doctrine.  In my view – many arm-chair theologians/Calvinists have missed the historical and literary context of the doctrine – and how it functions in what scholars call the sitz im leben (setting in life) of the text.  In Ephesians – the Gentiles are being told that they are “in” just as much as the Jews were “in” (read on to the end of chapter 2 – and chapter 3 where this becomes uppermost in Paul’s mind).  In Romans, Paul needed to tell the Jews that Gentiles were also part of God’s plan for eternity past (thus chapters 9-11).  Recall that the center of Christianity is shifting from its “Jewish Center” in Jerusalem to “Gentile Centers” in Syria, Turkey, Greece and eventually Rome.  By the end of the first century – Christianity would be largely Gentile.  Were Gentiles “afterthoughts” – or were they (we!) chosen before the creation of the world to be part of God’s plan to bring praise to himself?  (A rhetorical question.)

My ‘mantra’ continues to be the view that the Scriptures are practical.  Thus the purpose of doctrine is not ‘systematic theology’ – and all the arguments that ensue.  (Though there is a place for this.)  The purpose is ‘practical theology.’  And every doctrine functions in this regard.  This is where I think many Calvinists (and Arminians) have missed it.  If election (or the Calvinist version of election) does not move me to holiness, gratitude, humility and worship – I have misunderstood (and misapplied the doctrine).  I remain (with you) a Calvinist forever – believing that only by God’s grace will I PERSEVERE in my faith – and I hope that this doctrine will be even sweeter to you in the weeks go come.  I hope you won’t revoke my Calvinist credentials!”

Your Calvinist Shepherd,