By Stephen W. Hiemstra
No two doctrines of the church are further from the hearts of Americans than the doctrines of election and judgment, as Richard Niebuhr (1937, 137) characterized liberal Protestant theology: “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministration of a Christ without a cross.” Without judgment there can be no election because the two doctrines are mirror images of one another. Still, election is misunderstood as a kind of holy huddle, when it is at the heart of salvation and the antithesis to judgment.
Blessed to be a Blessing
McDonald (2010, 190-191) observes that the holy huddle is a modern myth writing: “…election is the expression of—and the chosen means to further—the triune God’s purpose of blessing.” The interpretative verse arises in the covenant of God with Abraham:
“Now the LORD said to Abram, Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Gen 12:1-3)
Notice how this covenant begins with a stipulation: “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house.” In modern parlance, Abraham, grow up and stand on your own feet. If Abraham is willing to take the risk of becoming an independent adult by leaving his father’s protection, connections, and wealth, then God says he will bless him to become a blessing to others. Even before the establishment of the Nation of Israel, God has laid out his plan to evangelize the world, anticipating the Great Commission (Matt 28:19-20) .
It is interesting that the parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-15) depicts the son that “took a journey into a far country” as the son who eventually comes to love and appreciate his father. Thus, the inward looking church—the “holy huddle”—appears more like the spiteful, older son who stayed home and, in terms of the covenant, refused to be a blessing to others.
Sodom and Gomorrah
It is interesting that in our generation, the story of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah is interpreted primarily in terms of the judgment of God on these two cities for their sexual sin, including homosexual sin. Yet, the context of the story is a dialogue between God and Abraham that begins with:
“The LORD said, Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do, seeing that Abraham shall surely become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him?” (Gen 18:17-18)
While the judgment of the cities is certainly topical, the focus of the story is on Abraham’s handling of God’s disclosure. What does Abraham do? Abraham immediately begins to intercede for Sodom and Gomorrah knowing that his self-absorbed nephew, Lot, lives near Sodom.
The key phrase in Abraham’s intercession is: “Will you [God] indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked?” (Gen 18:23) God does not spare the cities, but he does send his angel to rescue Lot and his family.
What is interesting about this passage is that God reveals his judgment to Abraham, a stand in for the rest of us, to see how Abraham will react. In this example, Abraham passes the test when he exhibits compassion for the cities and engages God in intercessory prayer.
The Reluctant Prophet
How many of us would pass Abraham’s test? In scripture the counter-example to Abraham arises in the story of the Prophet Jonah. In this short story, we read:
“Now the word of the LORD came to Jonah the son of Amittai, saying, Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it, for their evil has come up before me.” (Jonah 1:1-2)
God’s disclosure to Jonah is similar to that of Abraham. Nineveh is another evil city that God that God has basically hinted to Jonah will soon be destroyed. But unlike Sodom and Gomorrah, God offers the city an alternative by means of Jonah who is sent to “call out against it.”
Knowing that Nineveh was the hometown of Sennacherib king of Assyria who had seized all of Judea, except for Jerusalem (Isa,. 36:1), Jonah hated the Ninevites and, instead of going to preach God’s mercy to them, he got on a ship to escape from God and his mission. Then, as every Sunday school kid knows, a storm came up, the sailors tossed Jonah overboard, and he is swallowed by a whale who, after three days, spits him up on a beach. God then repeats his request for Jonah to go to Nineveh. Listen to why Jonah refused to go:
“And he prayed to the LORD and said, O LORD, is not this what I said when I was yet in my country? That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster.” (Jon 4:2)
In this response, Jonah recites Exodus 34:6, which recounts God’s character traits. Knowing God is merciful, Jonah refused to preach repentance to the Ninevites, but later does so reluctantly and they do repent, averting God’s wrath, much to Jonah’s consternation.
Judgment and End Times
Knowing that we are blessed to be a blessing and that God shares his plans for judgment with us through scripture and revelation, our attitude about those under judgment has to change. Judgment of those outside the community faith comes as a test of the hearts for those inside the community. Think about John’s prophecy about the end times:
“The nations raged, but your wrath came, and the time for the dead to be judged, and for rewarding your servants, the prophets and saints, and those who fear your name, both small and great, and for destroying the destroyers of the earth.” (Rev 11:18)
Do we cheer on the destruction of sinners, like Jonah, or intercede in prayer, like Abraham? Scripture is clear that God’s heart runs to mercy quicker than ours.
McDonald, Suzanne. 2010. Re-Imaging Election: Divine Election as Representing God to Others & Others to God. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.
Niebuhr, H. Richard. 1937. The Kingdom of God in America. New York: Harper Torchbooks.
Election, Judgment, and Reluctant Prophets
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