Will Willimon: How Odd of God–our listeners have been graciously elected by God to be for God


My book, How Odd of God, is my attempt to show the relevance of Karl Barth's Doctrine of Election for today's preachers. Here is an excerpt from that book that gives you an indication of the encouragement and critique I hope to give contemporary preachers:

  1.  God is the primary agent of preaching. (See previous post.)

  2. Our listeners have been graciously elected by God to be for God.

After Judas, we preachers ought never to be surprised that some obstinately refuse to listen or that others startlingly hear. It's easier to believe in our own election than to believe in that of others. Therefore a great challenge of ministry is indefatigably to believe that those to whom we speak are those whom God has elected to hear. They are not whom I would have called to be the Body of Christ were I doing the calling. They are God's idea of a fit kingdom, not mine. Part of the challenge of loving God is to love those whom God loves.

However, a joy of the preaching life is delight when someone hears, someone who, by all accounts, should not. It's then that we experience anew election, the inscrutable mystery of God's gracious choice, and exclaim with our ecclesiastical ancestors, "Has God's salvation gone even to the Gentiles?" (Acts 28:28). To be honest, it is frustrating when an untrained layperson is elected for some stunning insight that God has not given me, the preacher who thinks I ought to be the custodian of theological discernment!

Our listeners are a mixed bag, some of whom know the truth that, "God so loved the world that God gave . . ." (John 3:16), and others continue to assume that the contest between them and God continues. If God the Father must sacrifice God the Son or make life unpleasant for us preachers through the prodding of God the Holy Spirit, God will be their God and they will be God's people, because God is determined to get back what by rights belongs to God. Let preachers pray for the courage to take our congregations' rejection less seriously than we take God's embrace of them in Jesus Christ. Their hostility to the truth who is Jesus Christ is no serious contender.

We preachers often complain that our hearers aren't sincerely listening, or that they are biblically illiterate, or theologically malformed. All of this is true, of course. However, such disparagement of our congregations is beside the point in light of the doctrine that by the sheer grace of God they are elected: "Christ died for the ungodly" (Rom. 5:6), not for those who are biblically informed and spiritually astute. Thus election disciplines our preaching to rejoice in what God has done and is doing rather than bemoan the inability and ineptitude of our congregations.

By implication, if people do not hear, it may be because God has not (yet) gotten to them or (yet) given them grace to hear. Barth taught that the only difference between the Christian and the non-Christian was noetic. If we believe, it's grace, gift. We have received the news. When faced with rejection, we preachers will want to resist the temptation to lapse into apologetics-taking disbelief too seriously. We cannot manufacture more palatable revelation for those who have not (yet) received the real thing.

Rather than acting as if disbelief is decisive and conclusive, we will want to talk more of God's gracious election than of the disbeliever's rejection, humbly, patiently, expectantly to testify; convincing and converting them is God's self-assignment.

Election is a tremendous shove toward truly evangelical preaching. The sweeping scope of God's election could rescue evangelicals from the suffocating clutches of our culture's subjectivity and conditional salvation. Mark Galli, chiding fellow evangelicals for dismissing Barth because of his alleged "universalism," speaks of the evangelical joy arising from Barth's thought on election:

Jeff McSwain was a Young Life leader for years before being forced to resign because of his Barthian views. But he remains in youth ministry, and continues to preach the gospel of God's universal redemption and the need for a response of repentance and faith.

McSwain began rethinking his approach to ministry as a result of wrestling with the views of Arminians and Five-Point Calvinists. . . . For Calvinists, to say that it is our faith that makes Christ's death effectual is to say that salvation rests on our shoulders. It also smacks of relativism: Salvation is not true until we believe it.

McSwain argues that like Arminians, Barthians believe that Jesus loves everyone he created and that he died on the cross for everyone. Like Calvinists, he says Barthians believe that the atoning work of Christ actually accomplished reconciliation and forgiveness for everyone for whom Christ died. He concludes:

Instead of dismissing Barth, it would behoove evangelicals to consider the possibility that Barth's theology is the most evangelical of all. . . . With a dynamic theology of the Holy Spirit to go along with his robust theology of the cross, Barth knifes through the Gordian Knot of Arminianism and five-point Calvinism, and encourages evangelists to consider a third way, a way of making bold and inclusive claims upon the life of every hearer. . . .

McSwain notes a comment by Jim Rayburn, the founder of Young Life, . . . teaching on 2 Corinthians 5:19, . . . Rayburn said, "Every single person in the whole wide world is now reconciled to God. [. . .] It's been true for nearly two thousand years. I wonder what they [high school kids] would do if they knew it. . . . God has reconciled us, all of us, it's already done." . . .

[W]hen it comes to presenting the gospel to those who don't believe, McSwain says, "Like Rayburn and the Apostle Paul, Barth's proclamation of the gospel began at the starting point of theological belonging. [i]

From Will's blog, A Peculiar Prophet