Do No Harm: Paul in Context, pt. 2

In the first part of this theological response to neo-Reformed ways of understanding total depravity and original sin – and the potential harm in teaching these things to children – I looked at the importance of understanding Paul in context in Romans 5. Specifically, this hallmark passage for original sin theology contains a word, all, that must mean the same thing on both sides of the equation. If Adam’s trespass resulted in condemnation and death for all humanity, then the obedience of Jesus really results in justification and life for all humanity!

But the reality of this is mediated by something so that the all may be come many. Namely, it is mediated by human choice. The broken world truly envelops and affects all people because of Adam, but some develop into the status of sinner by choice (which is key for pushing back against the “deep brokenness” teaching toward children). Likewise, the grace of justification truly envelops all because Jesus has atoned for all (and all means all!), but some develop into the status of in-the-right by choice (faith).

When we understand Paul’s first-century, Israel/convenantal context, this element of choice makes perfect sense. It becomes, thus, far more “biblical” and theologically sound to teach our children something quite different from the Calvnistic total depravity/original sin dogma. We can convey that, yes, they are in a world that has gone bad in lots of ways, and, yes, they make mistakes sometimes, too – but they are already completely beloved by God and enveloped in the acceptance of Jesus (and so is everyone else). They are enough! There is not something deeply wrong with them – there is something deeply beautiful and right as they are made in the image of God and covered completely in the acceptance of belovedness in Jesus. They only need to choose to believe and walk in this reality, to enter this covenant by a simple life of faith. (And personal brokenness will be perceived as development happens, in a healthy and progressive sense, amidst this enveloping acceptance and belovedness.)

Which brings us to another word in Paul that, if understood in context, would do much to avoid the harm so often caused in the evangelical Calvinistic model.

That word is us.

Hence:

For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will – to the praise of his glorious grace,which he has freely given us in the One he loves.

In the typical neo-Reformed teaching (and Calvinistic teaching in general), this is perhaps the clearest statement of the doctrine of election, which is predicated on the “deep” depravity which makes human beings unable to choose anything good, even the choice to believe in Jesus. The “deep brokenness” that is taught to children takes on a particularly harmful character here, and I have witnessed it firsthand in a neo-Reformed Baptist church. Kids who have no ability to developmentally process severe things like their horrible sinfulness and the fear of eternal bodily torture in hell are told that God only chooses some for heaven, and the adults will have to wait and see if they have genuine faith. This is soul destroying stuff. I served a youth group full of kids who were stuck in worn-out complacency (we are probably non-elect, so whatever) or terrified compliance (submit and do the right things to prove genuine faith/election). It was abusive (which is why I left), and I have no doubt that the kids affected will be working through the emotional pain for years to come (especially once pathologies rise to the surface in their thirties).

This nonsense would all be prevented if Paul was read in context here. The word us is peppered throughout these verses: he chose us, he predestined us, he freely gave to us. But who is us? Is it, as the neo-Reformed teaching goes, all of the elect/saved throughout all time? Or is Paul talking about a specific group here?

Paul’s first-century, Israel/covenantal context would inform us that his understanding of election is always the particular for the sake of the universal. Thus, just as God chose Isaac over Ishmael and Jacob over Esau for the purpose of incorporating a larger group in their “family” – eventually, the whole world! – so God was choosing new “founding fathers” for the purpose of continuing this covenantal expansion of Abraham’s family through the church. Thus, when Paul says us here, he means these new founding fathers, the apostles and their associates, who have been specifically chosen and predestined in order to bring the world into the family of Abraham by way of the Messiah, Jesus! And of course, how does this happen? By that mediating element, human choice, faith, by which anyone can be grafted into the Vine (see Romans 9-11).

Check out the flow of Paul’s argument:

…he made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, to be put into effect when the times reach their fulfillment—to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ.

See, God made these mysteries known to us, the apostles and their associates, at the right time after the work of the Messiah, to bring unity to ALL THINGS under the Liberating King.

The particular for the sake of the universal!

Here it is even clearer:

In him we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will, in order that we, who were the first to put our hope in Christ, might be for the praise of his glory. And you also were included in Christwhen you heard the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation. When you believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession—to the praise of his glory.

See, we were chosen, and then you were included when you heard the message and believed. That’s the pattern! The particular for the sake of the universal, people who choose to believe and are thus grafted into the particular by faith. And then they become a part of that particular, the church, for the sake of anyone and everyone around them, with divine potential entering every space they inhabit. With belovedness overpowering all brokenness. 

Paul’s crescendo in this chapter is one of my favorite passages in all of scripture:

And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way.

Election is not the method of salvation for a select few throughout all time, it’s the method of mission for the inclusion of the whole world – whoever, wherever, whenever – by faith!

How much better would it be to raise our children with this kind of vision of God’s purpose and will for the world? How would it change their understanding of themselves and those around them? How might they be captured by their belovedness and the belovedness of others in extending the good news of life, healing, and hope in Jesus so that it might truly fill everything in every way”?

How much better would that be?

Answer: much better.

What do you think? Am I right in my interpretation of this passage and of Paul in general? Is seeing election as the method of mission rather than the method of salvation less harmful and more hopeful? I want to hear your thoughts!

About Zach Hoag

Zach J. Hoag is a writer and missional minister from notoriously non-religious New England. He blogs here at Patheos and HuffPost Religion. His book, Nothing but the Blood: The Gospel According to Dexter, released in 2012. Most importantly he binge-watches TV dramas and plays in the snow with his family.

Find him on Twitter & Facebook!

  • MAGuyton

    “Election is not the method of salvation for a select few
    throughout all time, it’s the method of mission for the inclusion of the
    whole world – whoever, wherever, whenever – by faith!” YES!!!

    • http://zhoag.com/ zachhoag

      MAGuyton I was pretty excited about that sentence too :).

  • 1TimCochrane

    Dude, this is fantastic stuff. There is a lot  for me to chew on here but it is beautiful. It more strongly stirs and motivates me for God’s mission.  More so then my original understanding of this doctrine. I also read that piece by J.R Woodward tackling this same topic. This is for me challenging but great stuff.

    • http://zhoag.com/ zachhoag

      1TimCochrane thanks man. now, here’s all I ask – don’t just receive it as a challenge. open up to being convinced. when you do, let me tell you, there will be freedom waiting for you that you can hardly imagine. 
      i know that sounds intense, but i’ve experienced it, for real.

  • Lydia

    “….but they are already completely beloved by God and enveloped in the acceptance of Jesus (and so is everyone else). They are enough! There is not something deeply wrong with them – there is something deeply beautiful and right as they are made in the image of God and covered completely in the acceptance of belovedness in Jesus. They only need to choose to believe and walk in this reality, to enter this covenant by a simple life of faith. (And personal brokenness will be perceived as development happens, in a healthy and progressive sense, amidst this enveloping acceptance and belovedness.)”
    Yes, Yes, Yes!!! Great articulation.
    This is exactly what I was explaining to my daughter recently when she came back from a mission trip with some youth who were being taught in a YRR environment. Teens especially get into this ‘I am a worm and there is nothing in me that God sees worthy of saving but he did  anyway and I am still a worm” sort of talk.
    Listen Calvinism can be suicidal for a young person who has been molested or abused as a child. Many are leaving Christianity all together.  I am seeing this more and more from people who were raised in it.
    I am so glad you are explaining the “beloved view” which is full of hope and values His creation.

    • http://zhoag.com/ zachhoag

      @Lydia Thanks so much for sharing this Lydia. Sounds soooo familiar. Agree 100%.

  • ryshenk

    Me too! This is where I land solidly after finally being able to set it all before me and question it without needing to make a living from it any longer. Life hasn’t gotten easier but I am free in many more ways. This not only rings true but gives life for my family. Thanks for sharing your gift of articulation!

    • http://zhoag.com/ zachhoag

      ryshenk thanks bro. i’d love to hear more of your story. were you a church planter?

      • ryshenk

        Mostly a worship pastor, but yes, a year of church planting profoundly changed me and my wife. Made the gospel more real and tangible and solidified many suspicions we had about doing church. Our denomination ‘downsized’ for lack of a better term, and now we are on to the next chapter.
        I have never worked in a Reformed context but have enough personal experience to have witnessed the destructive environment you mention. I used to lean toward Reformed perspective myself because of continuity thru scripture etc, but now share your perspective and find a much deeper and more satisfyingly Jesus-centered continuity here.

  • abisomeone

    Hmmm…what if the “us” actually is bigger than the apostles, et al?  What if the “us” means “all of us” — which could be more consistent within the entire chapter, where Paul uses “us” so very many times to mean everyone.
    Particularly in light of the following words:  “In him we were also chosen (emphasis mine)….”  This section can be more easily seen as speaking of the apostles, et al … followed by “and you also were included…”
    I have moved toward a more simple — not simplistic! — story.  One that is not so complicated that children cannot understand it.  Having  formerly been the pastor in charge of assimilation and teaching classes about church doctrine, I struggled to find the most simple story of God’s covenantal nature and how their cHesed in community is the source of all creation, from which the new covenant was finally cut in Jesus for all humanity.
    You may not be there … and I am still on the journey of learning.  The works of Dr. C. Baxter Kruger have been so very helpful to me.
    Be blessed, brother.


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