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The Mission of God, the Mission of the Church

This paper will examine the soteriological and missiological elements apparent in the doctrine of election. It will first argue that the doctrine is part of God’s sovereign will and that one aspect of God’s nature can be discovered in his missiological ontology. It covers the tension that arises from the doctrine of predestination and concludes by looking into the corporate or individual nature of election, arguing that it is in Christ we find corporate election along with salvation.


The Doctrine of Election and God’s Sovereign Will


Anthony Thiselton is very clear on the relationship between God’s sovereign will and the doctrine of election. He writes ‘This is the starting point and end point of any doctrine of election: we cannot go further back than the decision of a sovereign and loving God.’[1] The doctrine of election can be understood in two ways: i) those who are chosen for salvation, i.e. the elect, who are to be beneficiaries of God’s sovereign mercy and ii) those not elected, who are set to receive God’s sovereign justice by way of the doctrine of reprobation. This of course begs the question of Christian mission work: if any decision regarding the salvation or otherwise of any individual comes down to the sole discretion of God, what purpose is there in engaging in evangelism?[2] Wayne Grudem agrees with Thiselton and provides the following definition for election: ‘election is an act of God before creation in which he chooses some people to be saved, not on account of any foreseen merit in them but only because of his sovereign good pleasure’.[3] Grudem does not deny Calvin’s doctrine of predestination, nor does it seem does Thiselton; yet, Grudem engages with this implication on Christian mission in much more detail, even so far as to create a sub-heading within his systematic theology titled: Correcting Misunderstandings of the Doctrine of Election. He goes into detail as to why Election is neither fatalistic nor mechanistic.


Grudem notes that the objections to the doctrine often fall into one of these camps. A fatalistic system would exclude human choice or human decision, given that no matter what mankind do there would be no effect on previously ordained events: any attempt to influence an outcome would be in vain.[4] In the mechanistic system, human beings are reduced to no more than machines responding to external stimuli; genuine human personality is removed as a result of functioning in accordance with predetermined plans, causes and influences.[5] Grudem feels that election, according to its depiction in scripture, is a stark contrast to these objections:

The New Testament presents the entire outworking of our salvation as something brought about by a personal God in relationship with personal creatures. God’s act of election was neither impersonal nor mechanistic but was permeated with personal love for those whom he chose.[6]


Grudem, then, helps us to understand that the doctrine of election does not arrive to humanity hermetically sealed, that there is indeed, a place for mission; God will provide opportunity for repentance and for growing knowledge in Jesus Christ precisely because of His love, but this does not surpass the limits of predestination. Viewing the entirety of scripture through a lens of salvation-history we are introduced to God’s mission. The very fact that he chose to reveal himself in scripture and the incarnation are indicative that God sought to be involved in the relationship of man and man’s salvation; that is to say, God could’ve remained at distance from his creation and the doctrine of election would not be impacted; yet, without scripture and the incarnate Christ, salvation would be an unknown that mankind would remain uniformed about although perhaps still chosen for. It is therefore clear that the mission of the Church is interrelated and interdependent to the mission of God.


1.1 Missio Dei

Timothy van Aarde posits that a separation between the mission of God and the mission of the Church occurred post-1952 when the term and concept of missio Dei emerged. He believes that the interrelatedness of the Church mission and God’s mission is prevalent in the letter to the Ephesians, setting the biblical precedent for their unity. He writes that ‘the church has struggled with conceptualizing and understanding a view of mission that is simultaneously God centred and church focussed’.[7] He continues that God has had an eternal plan and that ‘in that plan the Church is more than a signpost or an end in itself, it has a participatory and prominent role in the unfolding and execution’.[8] Van Aarde has a large focus on the two concepts of οἰκονομία (stewardship) and πλήρωμα (completion) in the letter to the Ephesians, he writes that the role of the Church in Ephesus has been interpreted as being passive in the ‘filling’ or ‘completion’ of all things in Eph 1:20-23. He believes that in those verses:

The already of the kingdom that Jesus set in motion and the not yet that characterize the present time are reconciled and provide understanding of the relationship between the kingdom of God and the church. The connection between the concept of mission Dei, the church, and the kingdom of God is brought out in the relation of the two key concepts [mentioned above].[9]


This should not be interpreted passively is his ultimate point; the use of οἰκονομία in Ephesians reflects God’s active will in the ‘relationship between the sending of the Son, the missio Dei, the apostolic mission and the mission of the church.’[10] This is the continuous stewardship, with the created beings as subject, which stems from God’s love.

 

1.2 Willingen 1952


 To address van Aarde’s initial criticism of the separation between the mission of God and the mission of the Church we can look to the publication which arose from the meeting in Willingen; the International Missionary Council met there and published ‘The missionary obligation of the Church’. Aarde mentioned the difficulty that the church faced trying to remain God centred yet church focused. Yet in the publications ‘statement on the missionary calling of the Church’ it is hard to delineate the two. Section ii begins: ‘the missionary movement of which we are part has its source in the Triune God Himself’.[11] Even more strongly, section ii.v concludes:

There is no participation in Christ without participation in His mission to the world. That by which the Church receives its existence is that by which it is also given its world-mission: As the Father hath sent me, even so send I you.[12]


What is clear from the above statement is a church focused but God centred mission. To understand the God-centredness of the above statement, one must hold a similar view as Andy Johnson: what he calls the ‘missional being of God.’[13] In his article he argues that God’s mission cannot be separated from his being, thus doctrine of the trinity and the doctrine of election become linked through the missiological element. Johnson writes:

The Son proper is the object of the Father’s election, which the Son wills to carry out through the Spirit, who wills to inhabit the Son in order to bring this elective act to its telos.[14]

So, we have then a linking between the missio Dei, in the sending of the Son and the joining of the Church as the ecclesia in Christ. Johnson spells it out most effectively for the doctrine of election:

Because act and being are inseparable, both for God and the church, in order to be ‘in the son’, and thus elect by being in the Elect One, one must be in a particular, culturally embedded, body of the Son engaging its culture in the reconciling, rescuing, electing mission of the Triune God in the mode of the Son’s own engagement with the world, that is, in Spirit-empowered fidelity to God the Father and cruciform love for others.[15]


Van Aarde is correct to argue that the mission of the church is also the mission of God, but his proposal that the introduction of the concept of missio Dei, which occurred because of the 1952 Willingen conference does not hold up to scrutiny. For example, another section worth mentioning from the literature of 1952 is section iii, titled: The Total missionary Task. ‘God sends forth the Church to carry out His work to the ends of the earth, to all nations, and to the end of time’;[16] this statement resonates with Aarde’s notion of οἰκονομία and πλήρωμα perfectly. The key to understanding the connection is within the doctrine of election as Johnson has helped to illustrate. The two concepts from van Aarde are used in a similar context to Johnson when he writes:

The Triune God’s eternal election to be God for us in Christ through the spirit is an ongoing act being carried out by the Spirit in the economy in the body of the Son (οἰκονομία) in order to bring creation to its fullest potential (πλήρωμα) through a humanity reshaped into the image of God’s truly human and truly divine Elect One.[17]

This stresses the soteriological element of the doctrine of election without excluding the missiological ontology of the Triune God.


Corporate or Individual Election


Following on from above, we see that Johnson in his exegetical work of Thessalonians speaks of the Elect One, who Johnson identifies as Jesus. Christ’s sharing of the divine will as outlined in the Chalcedon definition, indicates that it is Jesus Christ himself who elects; his will reflects God’s will, so there is no tension to be found in that statement. But perhaps there is more to this role? Cornelius Venema takes his reader through Karl Barth’s thorough theology of the doctrine of election and writes ‘But Jesus Christ is more than the subject of election…for Barth, Jesus Christ is also, and at the same time, the object of God’s election of man.’[18] To illustrate that Venema is quite correct about how Barth stood on the issue, a quote from Barth’s Dogmatics:

Jesus was Christ at the beginning. He was not at the beginning of God, for indeed God has no beginning. But he was at the beginning of all things, at the beginning of God’s dealings with reality which is distinct from himself. Jesus Christ was the choice or election of God in respect of this reality. He was the election of God’s grace as directed towards man. He was the election of God’s covenant with man.[19]


So, is it Jesus, as the Elect One, that is the sole recipient of the individual election from which corporate election follows? Barth writes ‘starting from the election of Jesus Christ it does not immediately envisage the election of the individual believer.’[20] The individual believer must first be part of a community of fellowship that has Jesus at the head. For Barth, this was either Israel or the Church. The doctrine of election can maintain the OT promise, or the Abrahamic covenant, by not denying the Israelites as the chosen people of God, the corporate elect, even though Christ in his electing role came later. Venema introduces us to the idea as put forward by Achtemeir: the history of Israel is not necessarily just a history of a race of people, it could also be a history of God’s sovereign choice; this always included his intention to be gracious to all humanity from what arose from out of the community in the land of Israel.[21] The advent of Christ, who of course arose in the land of Israel, can easily be reconciled with the Abrahamic covenant if we read in the context of the Messiah and the royal Davidic covenant that places Jesus as King over the Jews. For the Gentiles, accepting Christ as sovereign over them, as members of the gathered church, provides the opportunity to be considered for election. As has been outlined above this has always been the missio Dei under the stewardship of Jesus. This is a strong case for the corporate nature of election.


Venema believes that there is exegetical warrant in Rom 9:6-16 ‘that require the idea of God’s gracious choice to save some individual persons from among a larger body or corporate people’.[22] Venema points out that in the passage Paul makes a distinction between elect Israel and the elect of Israel, he clarifies this by noting the difference between the children of Abraham by natural descent and the children of Abraham according to God’s promise.[23] It is clear from this argument that God will select some individuals from the larger group. It seems, then, that it is not the case that Jesus is the sole individual elect, but that he was the eternal vehicle of election. He remains the Elect One as the eternal λογος; those who followed God’s word from the beginning, even before the incarnation, were still destined for salvation from sin and death through means of Him. Herman Bavnik writes:

Now it is undoubtedly true that Christ was ordained to be mediator to accomplish everything necessary for the salvation of humans; and it is equally certain Christ was not elected by God’s mercy from sin and misery to glory and blessedness…this act was rightly called ‘election’ because from all eternity the Father designated the Son to be mediator, and above all else because Christ’s human nature was foreordained to union with the Logos and to the office of mediator.[24]


So what then of the individual? Barth believes that the individual can only be designated for election by being a member of the elected corporate body. He writes in his dogmatics ‘When we say that the problem of the divine election includes that of the election of individual human beings, we recognise that this latter belongs actually and necessarily to the sphere of the former’.[25] Venema, like Barth, argues that individual election also stems from the corporate elect. ‘When Paul speaks of God’s choice with respect to Isaac and Jacob, he is speaking of specific persons from among a larger group.’[26] 


This final point is indicative of the organic relationship that exist between the soteriological and missiological elements of the doctrine of election, and how the imperative to evangelise remains. The individual must first be brought into the larger elect group, the elect group is defined as those who are under the stewardship of Christ. This was argued previously as the missionary aspect of God’s ontological being. It is rooted in the Great Commission of Matthew 28; we see our Elect One send out others to first draw them to him. The commission is to be active for all nations, to teach and to baptize. It is the baptismal sacrament that is important, the marker of a new life in Christ where salvation is possible. In this regard the Great Commission is an extension of the doctrine of election.


Conclusion


This paper has argued for the inclusion of the doctrine of election to be considered as a part of God’s nature. That the eternal missio Dei, that sought salvation for humanity, was carried on by Jesus the Elected One; by extension and design, as the body of Christ, the Church continues the missionary aspect by its imperative command (found in the Great Commission) to evangelise, and to bring people to knowledge of God, through Jesus, in whom we find election. It also argued for the corporate nature of election and salvation, agreeing with Barth. The doctrine of election can be applied to those in the Davidic Covenant or those in the Church as they both share in the stewardship of Christ Jesus.


Bibliography

Aarde, Timothy Alexander Van, ‘| Van Aarde’, Missionalia: Southern African Journal of Missiology, 44.3 (2016), 284–300 <https://doi.org/10.7832/44-3-117>

Barth, Karl, Doctrine of God, Vol.2 (32-39), edited by Geoffrey William Bromiley and Thomas Forsyth Torrance (Edunburgh, Scotland: T&T Clark, 1957) <https://search-alexanderstreet-com.uhi.idm.oclc.org/view/work/bibliographic_entity%7Cbibliographic_details%7C1926121#page/102/mode/1/chapter/bibliographic_entity%7Cdocument%7C5057032>

Bavinck, Herman, Reformed Dogmatics (Grand Rapids, Mich. : Baker Academic, 2003) <http://archive.org/details/reformeddogmatic0002bavi> [accessed 19 March 2024]

Grudem, Wayne, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine, 2nd edn (London: IVP, 2020)

International Missionary Council, The Missionary Obligation of the Church; Willingen, Germany, July 5-17, 1952, International Missionary Council (London, Edinburgh House Press, 1952) <http://archive.org/details/missionaryobliga0000inte> [accessed 16 March 2024]

Johnson, Andy, ‘Ecclesiology, Election, and the Life of God: A Missional Reading of the The...: EBSCOhost’, Journal of Theological Interpretation, 9.2 (2015), 247–65

Thiselton, Anthony C., Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Michigan: Wm, B Eerdmans Publishing Co, 2015) <https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/uhi/detail.action?docID=4859134.>

Venema, Cornelis P, ‘“JACOB I LOVED, BUT ESAU I HATED”:’, Mid-America Jornal of Theology, 26 (2015)

 


[1] Anthony C. Thiselton, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Michigan: Wm, B Eerdmans Publishing Co, 2015), p. 48 <https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/uhi/detail.action?docID=4859134.>.

[2] There are other aspects of Missionary work, the Scottish Episcopal Church have five marks of mission <Marks of mission – The Episcopal Church>

[3] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine, 2nd edn (London: IVP, 2020), p. 818.

[4] Grudem, p. 820.

[5] Grudem, p. 822.

[6] Grudem, p. 822.

[7] Timothy Alexander Van Aarde, ‘| Van Aarde’, Missionalia: Southern African Journal of Missiology, 44.3 (2016), 284–300 (p. 284) <https://doi.org/10.7832/44-3-117>.

[8] Aarde, p. 284.

[9] Aarde, p. 285.

[10] Aarde, p. 288.

[11] International Missionary Council, The Missionary Obligation of the Church; Willingen, Germany, July 5-17, 1952, International Missionary Council (London, Edinburgh House Press, 1952), p. 2 <http://archive.org/details/missionaryobliga0000inte> [accessed 16 March 2024].

[12] International Missionary Council, p. 3.

[13] Andy Johnson, ‘Ecclesiology, Election, and the Life of God: A Missional Reading of the The...: EBSCOhost’, Journal of Theological Interpretation, 9.2 (2015), 247–65 (p. 249).

[14] Johnson, p. 264.

[15] Johnson, p. 264.

[16] International Missionary Council, p. 3.

[17] Johnson, p. 265.

[18] Cornelis P Venema, ‘“JACOB I LOVED, BUT ESAU I HATED”:’, Mid America Journal of Theology, 26 (2015), p. 20.

[19] Karl Barth, Doctrine of God, Vol.2 (32-39), edited by Geoffrey William Bromiley and Thomas Forsyth Torrance (Edunburgh, Scotland: T&T Clark, 1957), p. 103 <https://search-alexanderstreet-com.uhi.idm.oclc.org/view/work/bibliographic_entity%7Cbibliographic_details%7C1926121#page/102/mode/1/chapter/bibliographic_entity%7Cdocument%7C5057032>.

[20] Barth, p. 197.

[21] Venema, p. 37.

[22] Venema, p. 48.

[23] Venema, p. 49.

[24] Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics (Grand Rapids, Mich: Baker Academic, 2003), p. 403 <http://archive.org/details/reformeddogmatic0002bavi> [accessed 19 March 2024].

[25] Barth, p. 310.

[26] Venema, p. 50.

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