Election Means Preference
Harry M. Kuitert
Reprinted from Signals from the Bible, by Harry M. Kuitert, translated by Lewis B. Smedes (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing company, 1972), pp.73-76. Used by permission.
"Election" is the most offensive word in the vocabulary of the church! Its very offensiveness compels us to take a hard look at it. What is the connection between this word and the total message of the Bible? And if we are offended by it, are we offended by God's preferences or by our misunderstanding of election?
First something about the word "preference." This is without doubt the basic sense of the word "election," at least in the Old Testament. Genesis 29:30 tells us that Jacob loved Rachel more than Leah. But in the next verse we are told that he hated Leah. To love, here, means to prefer someone. To hate seems to mean not to prefer someone. Jacob prefers Rachel; he does not prefer Leah (see 1 Sam. 1:5 for a comparable instance).
We have to see these words as part of the whole Old Testament word-picture; we have to hear the whole story if we are to understand the bits and pieces of it. For instance, Jesus does not mean to tell us in Luke 14:26 that we really ought to hate our mothers and fathers — not as we think of hate. Again, it is a question of preference. Matthew suggests the sense, in his rendering of the same statement: "He who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me" (Matt. 10:37). Malachi 1:2, 3 has to be read the same way: "'I have loved you,' says the Lord. But you say, 'How hast thou loved us?' 'Is not Esau Jacob's brother?' says the Lord. 'Yet I loved Jacob and I hated Esau.'"
The notion of preference provides the content of the word "election." A Hebrew dictionary tells us this, but so do the many places in the Old Testament where "to love more than" and to "choose out" are parallels (Deut. 4:37; 7:8; 10:15, etc.). To elect means to have preference for. It is in this sense that Israel is the elect people. They are the people of God's preference (Amos 3:2; Ps. 147:19, 20).
The main issue of the Bible's message of God's election is not what we sometimes call predestination. It is rather God's preference, as He brings it to light. But is this democratic of God, to prefer one people? Does the word "preference" soften the blow; is not preference about the same thing as arbitrary choice?
To answer this question we have to keep our Bible open. We should ask ourselves whom it is that God prefers. We can best get at this by reading the story of Jesus Christ, for He stands in our midst as the representative of this God who has preferences. Anyone who has seen Him at work has seen God Himself at work (John 14:9).
For whom does Jesus Christ show preference? Is it not clear on every page of the Gospel? He prefers the lost, the publicans and sinners, the sick and rejected. In a word He prefers all those in need of His saving hand. We can describe God's preferences: they are preached to us in the whole Bible, and preached with great force and clarity. Notice that I said preached. The notion is not swept under a rug somewhere. To put it boldly, though without exaggeration, the preaching of the Gospel is the same as the preaching of God's preference. Anyone who does not have a feeling for this has not grasped the point of the Gospel. He is something of a Pharisee. To the Pharisee Jesus' preferences were offensive; he forgot how to understand Israel's God and thus he could not understand Jesus as God's representative.
The preference of God — Jesus let us see what it was like; He witnessed to it in all His words and actions. What He told us comes to this: God's preference means that He is a merciful God and intends to stay that way. We get a glimpse of His manner of being God, His "style" (as G.C. Berkouwer puts it), by looking at His election (His having preferences). He does not want to exercise His Godness except by showing Godly mercy. This is why we cannot get close to God "on the basis of works." This is why we can get close to Him only as He (in His bottomless mercy) calls us (Rom. 9:11).
This is the golden thread that binds Romans 9 together. Paul is not dealing with the question of the predestiny of some individuals; he is revealing God's preferences. Why should Isaac be chosen instead of Ishmael; why Jacob instead of Esau? It is because God wanted to maintain His style, Paul says; that is, it is not that one man is better or older than another that qualifies him for God's preference. God's mercy alone accounts for it. A man is a Christian by the grace of God, not by His Christian accomplishments. To put it another way, partnership in the covenant rests in election.
The purpose of preaching election is made quite clear in the Scriptures. First, one begins to praise God when he knows God's preference (His election), for one praises when he discovers mercy. Our standing with God rests in Christ alone: "He that glorieth, let him glory in the Lord" (1 Cor. 1:31 — King James). We can be part of God's program — this is almost incredible!
The Psalms of Israel are rooted deep in an awareness of God's preference. So are the songs of praise we find in the New Testament. We begin to sing when we discover that we Gentiles share with Israel in God's covenant promise (Eph. 3:6; Acts 11:18; Rom. 11:33-36).
The other side of God's preference is this: We can take part only as people who have no right to take part — and who know it. The preaching of God's preference is humbling to hear. It brings us to our knees; it makes us hold out our hands and implore that we too be allowed to take part (see Matt. 15:21-28 and Luke 7:1-10).
This is what the Pharisees could not swallow. Were they not allowed to take part? Naturally they were. They were called to take part. But they had to come in the same way — humbly, modestly, like the shy woman of Matthew 15. They had to ask, as a child asks: "If you please."
The real offense taken at the preference of God lies here — not in an intellectual notion of something like fatalism. To read fatalism into God's election can happen only through a serious misunderstanding of the Bible. It is not as though we cannot know where we stand with God. The proclamation of God's preference tells us that we can know, and know exactly, where we stand with God. The fatalism that has now and then crept into the church's talk about God rises out of another place: it comes out of the question of whether God's sovereign power and our free will can fit together. Are these not two exclusive notions that contradict each other? They are indeed to anyone who will not hold up his hands to ask.
But what do I have to fear from God's preference once I have discovered what that preference is all about? Once we know what sort of people He prefers, His sovereign power becomes our blessedness. This is what Paul tells us in Ephesians 1:3-6.