Rethinking the Doctrine of Election

Rethinking the Doctrine of Election March 4, 2016

Screen Shot 2016-02-12 at 1.11.56 PMKlein’s Conclusions and Questions on Election, by Chad Thornhill

In The New Chosen People, William Klein challenges the view that “election” in the NT (or in the OT, or in Judaism) was about the selecting of certain individuals for salvation. In my previous posts I looked at Klein’s sketch of election in the Old Testament and Judaism and in the New Testament. Now we turn to Klein’s conclusions and discussion of major questions relevant to the topic.

Klein summarizes his view as follows:

The NT writers address salvific election primarily, if not exclusively, in corporate terms. In other words, God has chosen a body of people to save, and election to salvation applies to the church, God’s chosen body. Though God previously chose Israel, she forfeited her position and the blessings God had offered to Israel as a nation, because she failed to live up to the conditions of God’s covenant with her. This does not mean that individual Jews could not remain within the confines of the “people of God.” Thus from the perspective of the NT writers, and in keeping with the grand narrative of redemption, the people of God was now enlarged to include all who put their trust in Messiah Jesus—including Gentiles as well as Jews” (238).

Klein advocates that the notion of “corporate solidarity” is central to this concept, since election is acquired by being “in Christ” (240). As such, “A corporate understanding of election confronts our individualistic and potentially narcissistic view of Christianity. Salvation then is not really about “Just Jesus and me!” All believers find their identity as God’s chosen ones through participation and incorporation in the body of Christ. An individual finds “chosenness” “in Christ” (244). There is thus a high degree of continuity between what election entailed in the Old Testament and Judaism with what it entails in the New Testament.

Klein sees several advantageous implications from his view. As it relates to divine sovereignty, Klein makes a distinction between God being “in charge” (i.e., sovereign) and God controlling or determining everything that happens (269). This means on issues like human sin and evil, God cannot be charged with promoting, causing, or sustaining these realities. Klein argues God’s sovereignty should be understood in correspondence with his character and will (297-299).

Klein resists the charge of synergism or semi-Pelagianism in that he seriously affirms that humans must be enabled to respond to God and that God must intervene in order for human salvation to occur. In other words, the initiative is with God. But God likewise genuinely desires the salvation of all and genuinely offers salvation to all (273). For Klein, this need not mean that universalism is entailed, since only those “in Christ,” those who respond appropriately to the divine invitation and initiative, receive the results of Christ’s atonement (275-276).

On more pastoral issues, Klein deals carefully with the question of apostasy. He notes, “The popular phrase “to lose your salvation” unfortunately suggests someone waking up one morning to discover that his or her salvation has been lost. Instead we should ask whether the NT writers provide any guidance about whether or not one can apostatize” (291). Klein concludes, “we must encourage ourselves, and everyone we know, to follow the way of Christ and to persevere in that way with unflagging zeal… We must take heed that praying to “receive Christ” is no guarantee of one’s eternal spiritual standing. Yes, embarking on the journey of faith is important, but continuing on that journey is ultimately what matters” (294). Thus, when individuals have questions about “their salvation,” the response “should not depend entirely on a person’s profession of faith” but “must be based on the evidence of a life that follows Jesus, showing the transforming work of the Holy Spirit” (301).

On the fate of the unevangelized, Klein suggests, admittedly in speculation, that for those who never hear, God may know how they would have responded, “so, then it is conceivable that God could apply the results of the atonement to them even though they never had the chance to respond” (304).

On worship, Klein emphasizes the collective nature of the practices of the early church, pointing to the corporate setting of administering baptism, sharing the Lord’s supper, sharing the “holy kiss,” laying on of hands, praying, hymn singing, creed reciting, using spiritual gifts, and teaching (307-308). All of these activities of worship in the early church were performed in the context of the collective body. Their spirituality was not primarily an inward and individual one, but an outward and communal one.

Klein has provided a helpful introduction to the New Testament’s theology of election. While there may be quibbles here and there, on the whole I find Klein’s treatment helpful. Two recurring issues which I felt needed more nuance relate to the nature of faith and the relationship between the Church and Israel. On faith, Klein tends to define the term as “belief” (e.g., 285). While he at times describes faith as trust, and on occasion also defines it as identification and participation (cf. 268), the emphasis on belief I think slightly skews the NT portrait, which in my mind includes belief, trust, and fidelity (I’ve found Scot’s definition a useful one: “the initial and continual response of trust in, and obedience to, Christ by a person for the purpose of acceptance with God” (McKnight, Galatians, 30). On the Church and Israel, while Klein at times opts for “incorporation” language as it relates to Gentiles, he more commonly seems to gravitate towards a replacement model where the church now possesses the status as the favored people of God, which Israel formerly possessed (cf. 305). I don’t think this accounts adequately for what is going on in, for example, Romans 9-11. These issues aside, Klein’s volume is an important contribution to the discussion on election in the NT, and one which I think more helpfully situates it within a first century Jewish context.


Does a corporate and conditional view of election to salvation more adequately describe the NT’s teaching?

How does mission and moral transformation relate to the concept of election?

How would embracing a corporate view of election change the teaching and practices of churches today?

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