You never want to be the kid picked last for dodgeball.
Dodgeball is even less-forgiving than its schoolyard cousin, kickball. At least in kickball, there are slow kids stuck in the outfield. But poor, poor fat kids have no hope in dodgeball. They're big targets, slow dodgers, and typically warm the bench. Their only hope of salvation comes in what my elementary gym teacher called "execution-style" dodgeball. In that version, you could bring a player back from the being out if you caught a ball thrown at you before it hit the ground (it also rendered the thrower out, outing the other team a player while your team gained one). Best of all was the redemption you could gain if you threw the ball into the basketball hoop on the other side of the court (indoor only). Then your whole team was resurrected!
I had my work cut out for me. I was a slow, "husky", and uncoordinated kid (I say winsomely as a slow, chubby, and only sorta coordinated adult). My skills were honed in a gauntlet; changing schools and churches meant establishing a new reputation. Otherwise, I'd be picked last every time. It meant a lot of trips to the sidelines, a lot of caution, a lot of observation, and a lot of jammed fingers when the ball wasn't squarely at my chest. It meant enduring the shame of the last pick time and again. But performance is what counts in sports. Finally, I proved my worth in fifth grade when I executed a power-slide/ankle-shot combo that not only avoided a blue foam ball aimed at my head but also rendered Kiley Sutton out. (I doubt very much that she remembers it over a decade later, but for me it was the moment when I became one with the execution dodgeball spirits.)
So imagine the scandal of a choice without any merit at all. Something totally unearned, something beyond all attainment; a choosing in spite of rather than for what the chosen deserves.
When a dodgeball captain chooses a terrible player, he may do so for two reasons. First, he may just be pitying the player. He may do so out of guilt; he chooses his little cousin for the team because Mom insisted that he include the awful tyke. He may also do so out of goodwill compassion. Maybe he genuinely wants to include the wimpy kid and his heart is stirred to the angelic goal of inclusion at the expense of team performance. Second, he may choose the fat kid to make his victory all the more impressive. He knows that if he can win even with such a severe handicap, his team looks that much better. Some blend of these two motives probably explained why that red-headed fifth-grader picked me in a church game back when I was six or seven. I remember he told me to stick close, then he deflected shots intended for me with the ball he held. My throws barely reached half the distance to my target. Still, by including me and sticking up for me, he was my hero for the night. And we did win when it was down to just the two of us based solely on his skill, not mine.
This is unconditional election, the "U" of the Calvinist TULIP. It's basically a way of explaining how anyone so stuck in total depravity can be saved from what they justly deserve. After all, there's no reason why you would ever pick the wimpy fat kid in dodgeball based on his skill. If that sounds harsh, it's because you haven't played enough dodgeball. You don't pick that kid because of what he can do, not if you want to win. Yet God does exactly that! For the same reason that a mighty fifth-grader would choose a merit-less first-grader, Paul says that God chooses to save the chief of sinners. Just as it brought glory to the fifth-grader to choose the weak one, so too God chooses the weak to humble the strong and wise. So the story of my first-grade dodgeball game is not the story of how I saved the day, but how the older boy saved the day. The story of a Christian's salvation is not the story of the great things he has done, but the story of the great things God as done. So, Paul says, Jesus saves people so that everyone will know the glory of God--his love, his power, his grace--and will boast in His saving work, not in their own.
I can already hear a few loud objections at this point (yes, even through the series of tubes that is the internet). First, isn't it vainglorious to want to make a big deal of yourself? Isn't God being a huge show-off? Why does He need glory and glorification anyway? Isn't He complete in Himself? Well, consider this: Idolatry can be defined in the Bible as putting anything in the supreme place rightfully occupied by Yahweh. So if you put anything above the Lord, be it your money, yourself, your partner, or Dionysus, you're an idolater. There's a good chance that our fifth-grader in the second story was wanting to make a big deal of himself to show how great at dodgeball he was. If that's the case (it's been so long, who can know?), it would be awfully vainglorious. But consider this: is it vain for God to make much of Himself? If He held anything above Himself, wouldn't that be idolatry? If He is really as majestic and satisfying as He makes Himself out to be, would it be right to put anyone or anything above Himself? Not even we can be a bigger deal than God. He can't think of any one of us or even all our doomed race above or even equal with himself. Then we'd be bigger gods than He is. And you thought you had ego problems before...
Second (and related), couldn't He just have done so out of love? Maybe He was moved by compassion, not by glory. Think back to the motives of our team captain. Noble compassion can move the captain too. That's very true. But does that preclude glory? Think as if you were really God (shouldn't be too hard, we all do so pretty often). Imagine you were the most satisfying, beautiful, enthralling, intelligent, benevolent being in the universe... wisdom embodied even! You know that finite creatures spin their wheels trying to satisfy themselves apart from you. You're all they need; you know it, but they don't. Wouldn't it be the most loving thing in the world to reveal yourself to them? I remember planning to pay a visit to a girl I was (sorta) courting. She called me to say that she was having an awful weekend. Her heart was burdened with her dad's recent health scare. She said she was wiped out from crying and felt like she looked awful. Maybe this wasn't the smartest move, but I begged to see her anyway. To me, it didn't matter if she looked like a million bucks or half-drowned. I just wanted to spend time with her! To her credit, she did the selfless thing and deigned to see me anyway. We had a wonderful date after all and I was blessed to have seen her. Her care for me led her to do something that some might read as selfish and condescending, but was really a sacrifice for her. It was the sacrifice of her very presence when she didn't feel up to it. That's not to say this is a perfect image of God's love and glory; this gal, divine as she is, isn't God. Still, she let me enjoy her company and make much of her. And I was thrilled to do so! Even though things didn't ultimately work out, we both had a great time together.
Third, couldn't God choose us based on respecting our choice? Back to dodgeball, wouldn't it be cruel for a captain to choose a kid who didn't want to play? Wouldn't that be bullying? We'll address this a bit more when we delve a little further into the TULIP, but I will briefly note something here. One could consider the willingness to play as a merit in a player. After all, the fact that some wimpy fat kid showed up at all indicates that he has some drive to do well. A shrewd captain will recognize this; coaches and teachers will tell you that determination counts for far more than raw talent in the long run. So in a lot of ways this is a weakness of the human analogy I've chosen. For this to really fit, we would have to assume a terrible player who had absolutely no inclination to play. Thomas Aquinas said that all our language for God was analogical; our imperfect and finite human words can't contain a perfect and infinite God. But notice something important we've already seen: the willingness to play is a merit. So, to make the analogy work, the choice to be saved is a merit! If you desire good things--things of God that have eternal significance--then you have something worthwhile in yourself apart from grace and faith. You merit some justification because you at least wanted to be good. But the Bible says that we were dead in our transgressions and that apart from faith--which is itself a gift from God--it is impossible to please God. We weren't chosen for salvation because we did any good...we didn't even desire good apart from God!
Keep in mind what I said last time I talked about this. I don't want to start a fight. I don't want to be mean and nasty. I know I haven't addressed the finer points of Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Wesleyan, or Semi-Pelagian theological interpretations of election and reprobation in biblical soteriology. If you even know what those words mean, you probably aren't my audience anyway. And yes, it's incomplete. This series isn't finished yet though (in spite of a lengthy hiatus), and no words I or anyone can use will ever fully capture an infinite and mysterious God. Gotta try though, even if I haven't a shred of dodgeball merit.