This post comes to you from a very good friend of mine Joseph Bonham, whom I consider one of the greatest theological minds I have studied with. What makes him very remarkable is his humility his gentleness. He has graciously accepted to be our guest blogger. Joe grew up in a small inner city Assemblies of God church in New Jersey. After finishing an undergraduate degree in Bible from Zion Bible Institute (now College) he spent two years as an intern at an AG church outside of Hartford, CT. Hungering for deeper study, he went to Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary where he met and married his wife, Carissa. After finishing his graduate degrees, they packed up and relocated to Oregon to be near her family. There they bought a house and had their son, Kaypha. Currently they’re a part of the Groves Church in Downtown Portland. Joe substitutes at some local Christian high schools and occasionally teaches Biblical Hebrew for adults. Joe has Master’s degree in Biblical Languages, and Master’s degree in Old Testament. You will be blessed reading this blog.
Theologians commonly pit ‘election’ by God against human ‘free will’. This is not an ivory tower debate, as it influences the answer to big questions. Can someone lose their salvation? Is God’s choice just? I want to leave this debate behind for a moment. It’s the only way we can hear how the apostle Paul pits God’s ‘calling’ against someone’s ‘fate’.
God’s people, then and now, have always been full of prejudices against those who are not God’s people. It was hard for Jonah to go to Nineveh. It was hard for the early Jewish Church to open its door to foreigners. It still is hard for some to think God might forgive Nazis of Germany, or love terrorists among the Taliban, or that a Palestinian might stand as God’s chosen.
Paul found himself in a similar situation. He was ‘called’ by God to preach to Gentiles (Acts 9:15, 22:21). This was not just hard. In Paul’s day it was not allowed (Acts 10:28). To justify himself in the eyes of fellow believing Jews Paul had to show that his missionary activity was legal when everyone thought it was unbiblical. The clearest explanation of how Paul did this is in Romans 9-11.
In these passages, Paul agrees with his Jewish audience that the Jews are God’s people because they were ‘called’, and not because of their fidelity. Paul’s point is that God gets to ‘call’ anyone God wants to call, even if they are not Jews (9:24). This is radical. This provocative.
Try to appreciate how Paul’s audience must have heard his statements. It might be similar to us hearing, “God is accepting homosexuals,” or “Muslims can go to heaven.” Our gut reaction is, “sure, if they become Christian, if they leave their homosexuality, and leave Islam.” But Paul was saying that they don’t have to become Jewish!!! They can stay Gentile. No circumcision required! This would border on heresy.
Before Paul’s audience either stones him or burns his letter, Paul pushes back. Isn’t God sovereign? Doesn’t God get to call anyone God wants? Look at our own history. Obviously it isn’t based on how Jewish or even how clean a person might be. Don’t we all agree that it is predicted that God’s message will go to Gentile nations? Is God’s word not going to have an effect on them? Does it say that only Jews will bow before God? Doesn’t it say that Gentiles will bow before God? Let’s not keep God in a box here.
In Peter’s vision, the argument seems to be that at least some Gentiles might not be damned after all (Acts 10:15). But for Paul, the argument goes even further. God’s calling cleanses Gentiles prior to conversion, at least enough for Jews to evangelize them without becoming dirty. In fact, this cleansing renders conversion irrelevant. This is an evangelistic campaign without the pay off, because there is no altar call, i.e. there is no plea to convert to Judaism via circumcision.
Today we have a lot of assumptions about who is called and who is not. We see someone with a tattoo come into a church service and we make a judgement that God’s word doesn’t. We watch as a family stops attending a church, and we make a judgement that God’s word doesn’t. Someone walks into a Planned Parenthood clinic and we form mobs with posters promising condemnation, as if we know God’s mind about their final destination. Someone with AIDS calls us to come pray for them on their deathbed, and we wonder if we should. Assumptions. Assumptions. What’s funny is that a lot of our judgement calls about who is ‘chosen’ by God is painfully close to our cultural prejudices.
God’s election defies our cultural prejudices. God’s election reaches beyond those we’ve written off as unelect. Because at the end of the day, we just don’t know. We have to stop presuming on God’s choice. Even IF God has made his choice about an individual ‘before the foundation of the world’, we do not have privileged access to it. Even IF God’s choice is unchangeable, does God confide in us with such matters?