What the Early Church Believed About Election
Election is another of those theological issues over which Christians have divided. It is my hope that, in this article, I will bring some clarity to the issue, not by citing any pet denominational position, but by appealing to the Sacred Scriptures and the Apostolic Tradition as handed down to us by the Church Fathers. These two witnesses, one infallible and the other instructively valuable, bring us closer to the understanding of the doctrine as it was before the petty divisions of the church we experience today.
Election is firstly founded in a relationship with Jesus Christ. (Ephesians 1:4). Our election is, then, only a derived election, as it comes in and through Jesus himself who is the first elect of God. (Matthew 12:18; 1 Peter 2:4). This is why our election occurs only in our relationship to and with Christ. (Ephesians 6-7, 9-10, 12-13).
“Christians have learned that their eternal life consists in knowing the only true God, who is over all, and Jesus Christ, whom He has sent.”- Origen
“Christ redeems us righteously from the apostasy by His own blood.”- Irenaeus
Our election is founded in not simply Christ's person, but on his blood shed on the cross for sins. (Ephesians 1:7). Before we were created God determined to save and transform humanity through the sacrificial death of Christ on the cross (Ephesians 1:4). Thus election is grounded on Christ’s sacrificial death to save us from our sins (Acts 20:28; Romans 3:24-26).
“Jesus Christ bore our sins in His own body on the tree.”- Polycarp
“He gained life for us by overcoming death.”- Lactantius
II. Corporate Election
Election in Christ is primarily corporate. What this means is that it is an election of a specific group of people (Ephesians 1:4-5, 7, 9). This group of people are called “the body of Christ” (Ephesians 4:12), “my church” (Matthew 16:18), “a people belonging to God” (1 Peter 2:9), and the “bride” of Christ (Revelation 19:7). Therefore, election is firstly corporate (the assembly of those who serve Christ), and embraces individual persons only as they identify and associate themselves with Christ and His church (Ephesians 1:22-23).
“Day and night, you were anxious for the whole brotherhood, so that the number of God's elect might be saved.”- Clement of Rome
“The white part is the age that is to come, in which the elect of God will dwell. For those who are elected by God to eternal life will be spotless and pure.”- Shepherd of Hermas
“It will be God's good pleasure to take out a church that will be sanctified by fellowship with His Son.”- Irenaeus
“Now it is not the place, but the assemblies of the elect that I call the church.”
-Clement of Alexandria
III. Individual Election
Election, with regard to the church, is a fact and certainty. The election of individual persons is predicated on obedience to Christ and perseverance in the faith. Paul demonstrates this as follows. The church is to be “be holy and blameless in his sight” (Ephesians 1:4). The church is led by the Holy Spirit into all truth, into holiness and into sanctification of its members. (Romans 8:14; Galatians 5:16-25). And as we know that Christ will “present her to himself as a radiant church…holy and blameless” (Ephesians 5:27), this would logically exclude those who do not obey Him and thus do not persevere in the Faith. This also logically means that election is conditioned on obedience and perseverance. In fact, Paul writes clearly that Jesus will “present you holy in his sight without blemish…if you continue in your faith, established and firm, not moved from the hope held out in the gospel” (Colossians 1:22-23).
“No one is a Christian but he who perseveres even to the end.”- Tertullian
“Those who do not obey Him, being disinherited by Him, have ceased to be His sons.”
“Let us then practice righteousness so that we may be saved unto the end.”- II Clement
IV. Election Open to All
Election to salvation in Christ is offered to anyone who is willing to obey and persevere in the faith. (John 3:16-17; 1Titus 2:4-6) It is received when we repent and demonstrate true faith as part of the salvation experience. (Ephesians 2:8; 3:17; Romans 1:16; 4:16). When one is baptized and becomes a part of the church by the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:13), one also becomes a member of the group known as the elect. Election then is the individual cooperating with the grace of God in order to receive that status (Romans 8:29). This is the doctrine most commonly known as synergism, which is the belief that the human will can and must cooperate with the Holy Spirit in order for a person to be saved. It is not, however, implied by the Church Fathers that God's grace is irresistible. In fact they taught quite the opposite. Suffice it to say that our will does play a role in our election.
“God ministers eternal salvation to those who cooperate for the attainment of knowledge and good conduct. Since what the commandments direct are in our own power, along with the performance of them, the promise is accomplished.”- Clement of Alexandria
“A man by himself working and toiling at freedom from passion achieves nothing. But if he plainly shows himself very desirous and earnest about this, he attains it by the addition of the power of God. For God works with willing souls.”- Clement of Alexandria
“He seeks all and desires to save all. He wishes to make everyone the children of God.”-Hippolytus