The true meaning of the doctrine of election according to Lesslie Newbigin

An excerpt from Jon Kuhrt’s paper Proper confidence in the gospel: The theology of Lesslie Newbigin published in 2009

Proper confidence in the gospel: The theology of Lesslie Newbigin

The fact that the gospel of Jesus Christ has public authority throws up many challenges that need to be responded to. Is it not impossibly judgemental or morally indefensible to claim the superiority of one religion or Faith above all others? In our post-modern culture, is it not preposterous to turn our private beliefs into a claim to ultimate truth? Does not even the Bible teach that God loves all people, so surely tolerance of all beliefs is the truly Christian approach?

We cannot deny that there is a Biblical tension between the universality of God’s love for all people and the particularity and uniqueness of his revelation through Jesus. Newbigin argues that the “key to the relation between the universal and the particular is God’s way of election – the doctrine that permeates and controls the whole Bible. The one (or few) is chosen for the sake of the many; the particular is chosen for the sake of the universal.”[1]

Newbigin acknowledges that to even discuss election is to invite ridicule from many. This is in part because of how the doctrine has been misused and misunderstood and the modern distaste for any form of elitism. But instead of sterile and judgemental discussions over the scope of election, Newbigin focuses on the purpose of those chosen. The elect are not those who are guaranteed to be the exclusive beneficiaries of God’s grace but rather those charged with the responsibilities to carry this blessing for the sake of others. “It is not concerned with offering a way of escape for the redeemed soul out of history, but with the action of God to bring history to its true end.” [2]

Thus Abraham and the nation of Israel are elected by God from among all the nations to be a light to the whole world, to carry a blessing for others – to declare and display God’s saving power. This did not mean that Israel was better than the other nations – in fact the Biblical account often contrasts other nations’ behaviour as more akin to God’s standards. And yet, because God is a relational God, he uses election as a relational way of showing his purposes via those who bear his image……

The misunderstanding of the nature of election has been a disaster in missionary theology because so often those elected have considered themselves the sole beneficiaries of God’s blessing rather than those charged with the message to share and to live out. We have focussed on future reward rather than our current responsibility. This has led to fruitless speculation about ‘who gets to heaven’ rather than the task of bearing witness to God’s forgiveness and saving love now.

For me this explanation of election is the most significant aspect of Newbigin’s writing. It requires a strong and confident Christology – to affirm boldly that what God did in the death and resurrection of Christ is unique and objective and that through Jesus all people can experience new life and forgiveness now. This is the gospel which brings new life – news that we want to share because its the best thing the Church has to offer.

Yet this strong commitment to salvation in Jesus’ name does not mean being judgemental to others. As commanded in Luke 6:37-42 we must leave judgement to God and be confident in the justice that he will one day bring. We also have to remember that in Jesus’ stories of judgement there is almost always an element of surprise – that those confident in their righteousness are rejected, the first are last and expectations are reversed (eg Luke 16:19-31). As Newbigin states “the question of eternal salvation and judgement is not a basis for speculation about the fate of other people: it is a an infinitely serious practical question addressed to me” [3]

[1] The Open Secret, p.68

[2] The Open Secret, p.34

[3] The Open Secret, p.79