Unmasking “Corporate Election”
February 23, 2010
“Corporate Election” has been gaining in popularity among some biblical scholars in recent decades. It purports to offer an alternative framework to understand passages that deal with the topic of election such as Romans chapter 9 and Ephesians chapter 1. “Corporate Election”, (as presented by its proponents,) denies the traditional Reformed or Calvinistic doctrine of unconditional election. That is, it claims that these passages do not teach that God has chosen a fixed number of humans for salvation not based on any choice or will of theirs[i]. Its main arguments are as follows: Both the historic background and Old Testament context of the New Testament epistles indicate that election needs to be understood in a group vs. individual context. In other words both Jews and Greeks in the first century A.D. would have understood “he predestined us[ii]” as speaking about the group having been predestined. Each person’s individual chosen status depends on whether or not he or she is part of the group or not. It is by being part of the elected group that ones election is determined. One becomes elect by joining the group, and if one leaves the group, one is no longer elect. In the teaching of the New Testament, it is said, individuals join the group of God’s elect people by exercising faith in Christ, and therefore, it is not necessary to interpret these particular New Testament passages (Romans 9 and Ephesians 1) as ruling out human choice as the original distinguishing factor between those who are saved in Christ and those who are not. If Christians join the body of Christ by exercising faith in him, and then become “elect” by virtue of their membership in the “elect” group, then, goes the argument, there is no need for us to think that God has determined who will be saved and who will not be saved with no regard to their own independent “free will” choice. I will attempt to show that this idea of “Corporate Election” misses the point of the New Testament teaching on election. I will do this by making especial use of the epistle to the Ephesians, and also show why this issue matters to the body of Christ. Ephesians chapter 1:3-14 presents a flowing summary of God’s plan to save “us” in Christ, from his predestination of “us” before the foundation of the world, to redemption, adoption, inheritance, holiness, and the sealing of the Holy Spirit[iii]. Its major theme is God’s grace shining in this whole plan from start to finish, and the scope of the whole is God’s glory. The reference to God’s plan being “in Christ” is repeated eleven times in these eleven verses! Obviously Christ is central in this whole plan of salvation from start to finish, (from election through the obtainment of the promised possession.) Commenting on this passage, Dr. Brian Abasciano writes, “the idea is not that God’s choice was based on our foreseen faith per se. It is that the Church’s election is intrinsic to the election of Christ[iv]”. A proponent of “Corporate Election”, Dr. Abasciano argues that Christ is the primary object of election, the original “Elect One” and that secondarily those who unite themselves to him by faith become members of his body, and therefore, they are elect in Christ and individually. Dr. Abasciano is an Arminian theologian, but his take on “Corporate Election” presents a nuanced argument that differs somewhat from the traditional Arminian argument: that predestination is based on God’s foresight of individual faith. However, Abasciano’s argument fails to take into account the place of Christ in God’s plan as revealed by God in the New Testament. God the Son became man and undertook the office of Christ the Mediator not simply to be the object of the Father’s choosing, (as he had no need of being chosen, himself being God from all eternity,) but to save a people. Without an elect people having been loved and chosen by God from all eternity, and a plan to save them by means of Christ, there would have been no need for an incarnation, no Savior. From the announcement of the angel that Christ would be born to “save his people from their sins[v]” to Jesus statement that “the Son of Man came to give his life a ransom for many[vi]”, to Paul’s statement that God the Father “predestined us to adoption through Jesus Christ to himself[vii]”, the place of Christ in God’s eternal plan of salvation is that he is the means of accomplishing the objective of God’s whole plan, which is the salvation of God’s elect, to the praise of his glory. From our perspective, then, as Paul shows us in Ephesians chapter 1, it is in union with Christ that we receive all the blessings and benefits that God’s grace has bestowed on us in the New Covenant. He is the means to every spiritual blessing for us as we have been united to him. However from the divine perspective of God’s plan, Christ is the means to saving God’s elect people whom he loved before the foundation of the world. The Savior presupposes a beloved people whom God intended to save. And this is the teaching of Paul in Ephesians chapter 1, that before the foundation of the world, God predestined his elect to adoption “through Christ” (1:5.) “Corporate Election” ignores Paul’s description in Ephesians of God’s plan as incorporating individuals who are not part of Christ into him. In other words Paul does not merely present an elect group who are viewed as already having been united to an elect head; rather he presents God’s work of gathering disparate persons into one group under one head. Paul describes the “summing up” of all things to Christ. Ephesians 1:10 says, “in order to the administration of the fullness of time, when he will sum up[viii] all things in Christ, whether things in heaven or things on the earth.[ix]” Paul is not only describing a fixed group united to Christ which existed in the mind of God before the foundation of the world, but individual disunified parts and how he would gather or “sum” them up unto him. Persons who were not part of a group and not under any one head are brought together by God’s sovereign working under one head, that is, Christ, and only then do they belong to the group. Therefore, the election of the group necessarily presupposes the election of individuals. Those who were not a people have now become a people, taken out (selected!) from out of the great mass of sinners in the world. And this gathering is presented as God’s own work from start to finish. In chapter 2:1-3 of Ephesians Paul makes reference to the former state of those who are now united to Christ, having been by nature deserving of God’s wrath and conducting themselves after the course of the whole mass of sinners in the world. But how had they become part of Christ? Paul addresses this in chapters 1 and 2, and ascribes all to God. For example, the apostle speaks of the believers’ first exercise of faith in Christ (1:11-14), ascribing even this “first hoping in Christ” to God! He says, “according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will, in order that you might be to the praise of his glory, who first hoped in Christ.” And, “In which also when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, in which also, believing, you were sealed with the Holy Spirit of promise, who is the earnest of our inheritance, to the redemption of the possession, to the praise of his glory.” Notice the apostle’s reference to God’s sovereign working of all things according to the counsel of his will (1:11) as if to say, “not only did God choose us, he worked it all out in time, uniting us to Christ, just as he works his will in everything else. What he had planned he also brought to fruition.” Notice in verse 14 the ascribing of glory to God for the faith of God’s people in Christ, in particular for their first “believing” on him. If this faith which unites them to Christ were not a work of God in them as part of his sovereign and immutable plan to save his elect people and draw them individually out of the whole mass of sinners, gathering them unto one head, that is Christ, Paul could not have praised God’s glory for their first exercise of faith as he does in verses 1:12 and 1:14. “to the praise of his glory.” It is not only election of a group that is in view, but the election of sinners who are not yet part of a group (2:1-3) and the means by which God planned to gather them together under one head, that is, by working faith in them (1:12, 14; 2:5-8.) I believe that I have shown that “Corporate Election” ignores major parts of God’s plan of salvation based on what is presented in the epistle to the Ephesians, particularly how God planned to gather individuals from a common sinful mass into a new group united to Christ by granting them faith on him. But “Corporate Election” does not only ignore this part of God’s plan, it inserts an element quite foreign to the sweeping theme of Paul in this epistle, which is God’s glory. It ignores the parts of the plan I have discussed in order to make room for the Arminian idea of a “free will” choice of sinners to believe in Christ. By denying that God intended to save a fixed set of individuals by union with Christ in his election of him, and by asserting furthermore, that sinners unite themselves to Christ by exercising an autonomous choice to believe in him, and that they become “elect” because of their resulting union with him, the proponents of “Corporate Election” introduce a break in God’s plan of salvation. The plan that was for Paul one sweeping crescendo of praise to God now acquires gaps. There is a link in the chain which we must supply ourselves, one which cannot be ascribed to God’s glory. But force of many, many passages in the Scriptures presents an unbroken chain of blessed acts and workings of God, for which he gets all the glory and the individual Christian gets absolutely none, especially Ephesians 1 and 2 but also Romans 8, 9, 1 Corinthians 1, etc. The idea that the individual believer has supplied some part in his own salvation which cannot in itself be ascribed to God as a matter of praise is quite far from the whole point of Ephesians 1, and the apostle leaves absolutely no room for such an idea. Not only does he ascribe all praise to God for every part of the salvation of Christ’s body, including the first believing of sinners in Christ, he also describes their former state as having been “dead in trespasses and sins.” The Apostle describes our former state as death and service to sin as a natural state of enmity to God both in our conduct and in our “minds” (2:3). The human mind is the source of all human will and choices. Therefore those who are in such a spiritually dead state of mind are naturally unable to exercise faith in Christ while they remain in that state according to Paul’s teaching. For this reason the apostle highlights the sovereign power of God to raise the spiritually dead to spiritual life (2:5). And this involves the work of the Holy Spirit to produce faith in them, as we also saw in chapter 1. For this reason in 1:15 Paul says, “having heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and love toward all the saints, I do not cease to give thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers.” Paul is giving thanks to God for the Ephesian believers’ faith in Christ. Certainly Paul would not have been able to give thanks to God for the Ephesians having believed in the Lord Jesus unless it were God’s work. One does not receive thanks for things that one did not do. If it were the Ephesians who had first exercised faith in Christ independently of God, or even with his help but with them completing the act of faith independently, Paul would be thanking the Ephesians for believing in Christ and not thanking God that they had believed in Christ. The fact that the giving of thanks to people for believing in Christ is so foreign to the New Testament is not merely a matter of style; it is because God has actually performed every part of salvation from start to finish, including the ends and the means. That is the reason why God always gets all the thanks, all the glory, and Christians never get any, as we see here. Having shown how the idea of “Corporate Election” conflicts with Paul’s teaching, I would like to answer the “So what?” question. Is this not a subject on which genuine Christians may safely disagree? I submit that this topic bears significant implications for the sanctification of believers, and it bears on both doctrine and practice of the people of God. It is a matter of holiness and godliness to have the correct view on this topic. For it is a question of whether or not God gets all the glory for our salvation. In speaking of the doctrine of election, Paul says, “God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise” so that no man may boast before God[x].” and elsewhere, “you are saved by grace through faith, and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God, not of works, in order that no one may boast[xi].” The point of Paul’s teaching on election is that Christians may ascribe all glory to God for their salvation and none to themselves. The reference to “boasting” occurs not merely to prevent boasting, but makes a larger point. It is that we cannot think that we contributed anything to our salvation. We must give all the glory to God. Why then is it important that this topic be decided in the minds of Christians and in the teaching of the Church? Certainly there are dear brothers and sisters in Christ who take the wrong view on this topic, who would never claim to have any reason to boast of their salvation, not the least of whom is my professor Dr. Abasciano. But the point is not whether or not they are boasting. The issue of the question is whether there is room left in the still-sinful hearts of Christians who are being sanctified for them to secretly and quietly think of themselves as wiser or smarter than those who have not made a decision to follow Christ. The Arminian idea that humans may make a “free will” choice to believe in Christ without complete dependence on God’s grace for this choice does mitigate God’s glory in salvation and leaves a little boasting room in the still-sinful hearts of believers. This boasting room the apostle is careful to exclude. But why is boasting excluded? Not just because boasting is immoral but because in fact Christians have nothing in salvation to take credit for, not even one little decision. And so the great plan of salvation from start to finish and all means occurring in between is a subject for the praise of God’s glorious grace. For this reason “Corporate Election” must be tossed in the trash with all other doctrines that rob God of any part of his glory in salvation.
[i] Cf. Klyne Snodgrass, Ephesians, The NIV Application Commentary, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996, p.49ff.
Cf. Ephesians 1:4, 5.
There is much debate as to what the logical ordering of the verses in this passage are, since in the original Greek it is one long flowing sentence with many dependent clauses. In any case the order is not strictly chronological.
Brian J. Abasciano, “Corporate Election in Romans 9: A Reply to Thomas Schreiner, Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society
, 49/2 June 2006, pp. 351-71, p. 17.
Gr. ανακεφαλαιωσασθαι – For a derivation of this word’s meaning as “summing up”, see Peter T. O’Brien, The Letter to the Ephesians
, The Pillar New Testament Commentary
, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999, pp. 111.
Translations used in this article are mine.
1 Corinthians 1:27-29.