A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery
Presbyterian Distinctives, Part II: Our Only Comfort
January 30, 2014
Last week we explored the distinctively Presbyterian emphasis on the sovereign majesty of God: Only God is Creator, Savior, and Shepherd (Presbyterian Distinctives, Part I: The One & Only). To be governed by any lesser loyalty – to wealth, power, pleasure, nation, self, etc. – is to live in idolatry.
Today we consider how that shapes a distinctively Presbyterian understanding of God’s way with us. Presbyterians maintain that our standing with God is God’s choice, and God’s alone. Theologians call it the mystery of “election.”
God is known to us by many names, each of which tells us something of who God is for us. Scripture is replete with scores of names, titles, and metaphors for God: The unspeakable YHWH revealed to Moses at the burning bush, Shepherd, Savior, Fortress, Mother, Friend, Lord, Servant, Ruler, Warrior, Provider, Creator, Fire, Healer, Judge, and so on. Jesus teaches that one of God’s essential identities is Father, to whom our essential relationship is as children. We can no more choose to belong to God than children can choose their father or mother.
Presbyterians distinctively insist that our relationship with God is initiated by God rather than by ourselves. We don’t meet God half-way, as though we share responsibility with God in determining whether we will be God’s children. Scripture speaks of our being children of God in terms of birth – we are born of the Spirit as of a divine womb (John 3:3-8). Or it is expressed as our being made God’s heirs together with Jesus (Romans 8:17). Sometimes it is framed as adoption into God’s family, whether in reference to Israel (Romans 9:4) or to Gentile believers (Galatians 4:5). In each case, our relation to God is determined by God’s parental choice rather than by our choosing to be God’s children.
Some have taken this to be a doctrine of terror, as though there is nothing we can do about our standing with God except to tremble in fear whether God’s coin toss will turn up heads or tails for us. But that is not how Presbyterians understand it. Not at all. For Presbyterians, this foundational understanding of how God claims us elicits comfort rather than fear, because we know that the God on whose choice we rely is, above all, good. Scripture teaches us that this God wants no-one to perish. (2 Peter 3:9) This does not mean that God coerces our obedience or just ignores our disobedience; rather, according to 2 Peter 3, it means God is willing to wait out our disobedience, much as the father outwaited the waywardness of the prodigal son in Luke 15.
The comfort Presbyterians find in the doctrine of election is captured beautifully in the first paragraph of our Heidelberg Catechism (Book of Confessions 4.001). Our most recent addition to the Book of Confessions, “A Brief Statement of Faith,” was prepared to mark the reuniting of the northern and southern Presbyterian churches in 1983. The security we find in God’s election forms the bookends of this beautiful Statement, which in a few short decades has become a core marker of our denomination’s identity:
In life and in death we belong to God….
With believers in every time and place,
we rejoice that nothing in life or in death
can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
While some Reformers rejected infant baptism in favor of believer’s baptism, John Calvin insisted that we continue to acknowledge through infant baptism that we belong to God not because we choose God, but because God claims us before we can possibly make our own choice for God. Indeed, God chooses us even from “before the foundation of the world”! (Ephesians 1:4) This does not diminish the importance of professing our own faith in Jesus, but it firmly situates that profession as a response to God’s claim on us, rather than as a condition for being received by God.
Jesus uses similar imagery to characterize his relationship with his followers: “You did not choose me, but I chose you.” (John 15:16) We are his disciples not because we have chosen to follow him, but because he has chosen us to serve him. We do not choose our vocation; God calls us to it. Next week we will explore further how this shapes a distinctively Presbyterian understanding of our service to God.
Your brother in God’s family,
The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, General Minister
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