Thursday, January 19, 2012

Thomas Goodwin on election in Christ: what it's not


Following the introductory post, we now delve right into Goodwin's exposition of Ephesians 1:4. As he opens up the text, the Puritan scholar first of all explains what is not meant by "chosen in him". This is a good place to start as election in Christ is often misunderstood. Only after having dealt with a number of misconceptions does our painstaking expositor give attention to the positive meaning of Paul's words. I won't go into all the ins and outs of Goodwin's engagement with what he takes be inadequate explanations of the text in question. Suffice to say that he is especially concerned to rule out the following  three lines of interpretation:

1. God did not choose people because he foreknew they would believe in Christ

The Arminian understanding of the verse says that God chooses people on the basis of foreknown faith in Christ. As we might expect, good Calvinist as he was, Goodwin objects to this construction. But he does so not on simply on the basis of cast iron Calvinistic logic, imposing his pre-packaged Reformed theology on the text. Rather he rejects to the Arminian view for sophisticated exegetical reasons. 

First  because it would mean that if God chooses on the basis of faith foreseen, then election is not of persons, but of graces. God did not choose propositions, 'He that believes shall be saved', but persons, 'chose us in him'. This admittedly isn't Goodwin's strongest argument. An Arminian might object that they teach that God chooses people who believe, not the faith of those who believe, but this is only the first point in a cumulatively persuasive case. 

Second, Goodwin brings contextual considerations into view. In Ephesians 1:3-4 Paul says that, 'God has blessed us with all spiritual blessings in Christ...according as he has chosen us in him'. If faith is one of the blessings that is bestowed upon us 'in Christ', then it cannot properly be said that God chose to save those whom he foreknew would believe in Christ. It is only because a person is already in Christ in some sense that he is blessed with the gift of faith. 

Third, Goodwin reflects on the fact that according to Paul in Ephesians 1:4, God chose us in Christ, 'that we should be holy and without blame before him'. He reasons that God did not choose his people because he foresaw their holiness. Rather, he chose them in order that they might be made holy. Faith, like holiness is a fruit of election, not its cause. Goodwin cites Acts 13:48. And so he thoughtfully refutes the traditional Arminian interpretation of Paul's words. 

2. God did not choose people because of what Christ would do for them

Next, Goodwin considers the proposal that the elect are chosen for the sake of Christ's merit. While it is true that we have 'redemption by his blood' (Ephesians 1:7), this is not the cause of our election. Scripture never suggests that this is the case. And as Goodwin points out, making Christ's passion the meritorious cause of election undermines the sovereign freedom of God's grace. The expositor refers to Ephesians 1:5, 'according to the good pleasure of his will'. Christ's merits are the cause of our salvation, but not the reason why God chose us to be saved. If grace was merited by Christ, then God was in some way obligated to save us. Goodwin rightly regards any such a construction 'a derogation from God's free grace'.  

Goodwin identifies this second view as belonging to 'Popish divines and interpreters'. But Charles Hodge comes dangerously close to this position in his commentary on Ephesians, saying, 'It was in Christ as their head and representative that they were chosen to holiness and eternal life, and, therefore in virtue of what he was to do on their behalf.' (emphasis added, p. 31, Baker, 1980 repr.) Similarly, Hendriksen argues that God was able to chose unworthy sinners because Christ would 'in their stead...satisfy all the requirements of the law'. (author's emphasis, p. 76, Banner 1990 repr.). But this is to put the cart of redemption before the horse of God's free and unconditional love for sinners. Hendriksen almost makes election a matter of divine justice rather than grace, which is plain contrary to 2 Timothy 1:9 etc.  

The Father did not need the Son to satisfy his justice to win his electing love for his people. Goodwin does not make this point, but his case is bolstered when we take the words "in love" at the end of Ephesians 1:4 together with "having predestined us" in Ephesians 1:5, "in love having predestined us" (cf. Romans 8:29). Scripture does not teach that God loved the world because his only begotten Son gave himself up to the cross for sinners. Rather, it is the other way round. God so loved the world that he have his only begotten Son (John 3:16). As John Murray writes, "It was in pursuance of electing love that God sent his Son into the world... in election there is the assurance that God loved sinners from eternity, that he loved sinners with such invincible love that he did not spare his own Son but delivered him up for them." (p. 127, Collected Writings of John Murray, Volume one, Banner of Truth, 1989 repr). 

Goodwin rightly saw that any suggestion that Christ's redemptive suffering was the meritorious cause of our election runs counter to the Bible's insistence on God's free and gracious love for sinners.  

3.  God did not chose people in order that they might be united to Christ 

Finally, Goodwin refutes the idea that what Paul means by 'chosen in him' is that God chose us in eternity in order that we might be united to Christ in the fullness of time. Reformed theologian Louis Berkhof rightly says that, 'Christ as Mediator is not the impelling, moving, or meritorious cause of election'. But he has not caught Paul's drift when he states that Christ is merely the 'mediate cause of the realisation of election.' (p. 114, Systematic Theology, Banner of Truth Trust, 1984). As Goodwin insists, Paul did not write that God has chosen us to be in Christ, making union with Christ the goal, much less 'the mediate cause of the realisation of election'. The text simply says that we were chosen 'in him' before the foundation of the world. John Murray is one with Goodwin on this, "those who will be saved were not even contemplated by the Father in the ultimate counsel of his predestinating love apart from Christ. As far back as we can go in tracing salvation to its fountain we find "union with Christ"; it is not something tacked on; it is there from the outset." (p. 162Redemption Accomplished and Applied, Banner of Truth, 1979). 

Goodwin's exposition of election in Christ in Ephesians 1:4-5 not only excludes erroneous Arminian readings of the text. His careful exegesis of Paul's words and nuanced theological thinking also provide a necessary corrective to some defective explanations of election in Christ within the Reformed tradition. 

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