As you read your Bible it is very possible that you, like me, have stumbled over the inconspicuous little word “elect” in the middle of a sentence somewhere and wondered what on earth that little word could possibly mean. You may have been reading in 1 Peter, for example, and come across the following verse, “To God’s elect, exiles scattered throughout the provinces”. It would only have been natural for you to wonder who Peter was addressing. Who are these elect people and what does it mean that they have been elected?
I find the word ‘elect’ to be a rather foreign word to my vocabulary. I tried to think where else I may have heard the word used and immediately thoughts of voting and elections sprang to mind. Unfortunately the everyday use of this word only goes a very short way in illuminating its use in scripture. My aim in this article is show how this little word gives us a glimpse into the grander scheme of God’s wonderful plan of salvation which has been unfolding from the creation of the world and, ultimately, give you some handles on how to “make your calling and election sure”.
The short explanation of the word “elect” is that it describes a choice that has been made. For this reason it is sometimes translated as “chosen”. However in answering the question in this way we raise several other important questions which are even more important, such as – chosen by whom? For what purpose? When we delve deeper into God’s dealings with man throughout history we find that there are three ways in which God has chosen and thus three different meanings for the word “elect” (in Greek – “eklegó”) as it is used in scripture:
- God chose certain men in history to be Covenant Representatives (Eg Abraham, Noah, Jesus)
- God chose a nation through whom he would bless the others
- God chose certain people to fulfil certain tasks
So whenever we come across this word in the text we must be careful to ascertain which use it is being put to. Many people have caused themselves a great deal of confusion by inferring the wrong sense of the word in a text that is speaking about something quite different.
1. God elected Covenant Representatives
For reasons best known by God, he has always dealt with the collective of his holy people through a man whom he has chosen to represent the nation. This is perhaps not acknowledged or emphasized enough. This is why God has been referred to as the God of “Abraham, Isaac and Jacob”. Before God chose a nation for his purposes he chose a man to be the father of the nation and continued to deal with the nation through the mediation of the Covenant Representative. God would elect one of the male descendants in each successive generation to be the next Covenant Representative. This succession would ordinarily pass down to the eldest son in the family (referred to as ‘primogeniture’ in theology). God did, however, sometimes elect another of the sons to receive this responsibility. Paul describes an example of this unconventional election in Rom 9,
“Not only that, but Rebekah’s children were conceived at the same time by our father Isaac. Yet, before the twins were born or had done anything good or bad—in order that God’s purpose in election might stand: not by works but by him who calls—she was told, “The older will serve the younger.”
This particular passage emphasizes that God’s election for this important role in his salvation plan was often quite mysterious – “before the twins were born or had done anything good or bad”. God’s choice did not always seem fair or logical to anyone but himself. What we do know is that after this kind of election, God would reveal himself to the son and renew the covenant with his new Covenant Representative, as he had done with his father. An example of this can be found when God renewed the covenant with Abraham’s son Isaac –
“And the LORD appeared to him and said, “Do not go down to Egypt; dwell in the land of which I shall tell you. Sojourn in this land, and I will be with you and will bless you, for to you and to your offspring I will give all these lands, and I will establish the oath that I swore to Abraham your father.” Gen 12:2,3
2. God elected a Nation
In the old covenant between God and the nation of Israel, God said,
“For you are a people holy to the Lord your God. The Lord your God has chosen you out of all the peoples of the face of the earth to be his people, his treasured possession.” Deut 14:2
The natural question arising from this statement is – why was Israel a “chosen people” and so special to God? The very next verse in Deuteronomy provides the answer –
“The Lord did not set his affection on you and choose you because you were more numerous than other peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples. But it was because the Lord loved you and kept the oath he swore to your forefathers… he is the faithful God, keeping his covenant of love to a thousand generations of those who love him and keep his commands.”
So it becomes evident that God’s love and special attention toward his covenant people was a consequence of his covenant with their forefathers, namely: Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Because these men found favour in his sight, God chose them to be the fathers of his chosen family; which later grew into a nation. This is made very explicit in the wording of God’s promise to Abraham –
“I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you…This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you: every male among you shall be circumcised… and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you.” Gen 17
In this way Abraham became a Covenant Representative. Anyone who was a descendant of Abraham and was circumcised according to the sign of the covenant could legitimately be called a member of the covenantal community.
The New Covenant Community of Faith
In the New Testament we find the same covenantal language (as is hopefully now becoming familiar) that is used in the old. In a striking parallel with the covenantal language used in Deuteronomy, we read in the New Testament,
“But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.” 1 Pet 2:9
Incidentally, this passage follows on from the verse quoted in the introduction regarding “God’s elect exiles”, to whom the letter of 1 Peter was addressed.
So what then is the new Covenant Community’s claim to the special title of “Chosen People”? It is on the basis of Jesus, of whom it is written –
“Here is my servant whom I have chosen, the one I love, in whom I delight; I will put my Spirit on him, and he will proclaim justice to the nations… In his name the nations will put their hope.” Is 42:1-4
In Luke 9:35 the Father proclaimed from heaven, “This is my Son, my Chosen One; listen to him!” Earlier I asked the question – on what basis did God choose Israel to be his people? The answer that scripture gives for them is the same answer that now applies to us, “it was because the Lord loved you and kept the oath he swore to your forefather/s.” Jesus is now God’s chosen Covenant Representative and so God makes his new covenant with him and with all his descendants in a manner corresponding directly with the covenant made with Abraham.
Many Jews took offense at this because it seemed as though the covenantal promise which God had made to Abraham and his descendants was now nullified. Does this mean that the descendants of Abraham are no longer his Chosen People? Paul addresses this question directly in Rom 9:6-8,
“But it is not as though the word of God has failed. For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel, and not all are children of Abraham because they are his offspring”
Many Jews had neglected the fact that their righteousness in God’s sight was not solely on the basis of their biological descent and the accompanying sign of circumcision. They needed reminding that God’s covenant depends on faith as much as outward signs of fidelity. Paul illuminates this potently in Rom 4:16,
“That is why it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his offspring—not only to the adherent of the law but also to the one who shares the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all”
The model of the covenantal community represented by the holy nation of Israel through the call of Abraham is a wonderful device which God uses to explain the nature of the kingdom and also finds a surprising fulfillment in Christ – the Father of the called out community in the New Covenant. Whereas a “child of Abraham” was synonymous with election in the Old Covenant, being a “child of God through faith in Christ” (Gal 3:26) is synonymous with election in the new.
In another surprising turn of events, we find in the New Testament that this was God’s plan from before the creation of the world!
“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world… In love he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will” Eph 1:3-5
Through God’s purpose in election he wanted it that Jesus would be the Father of his holy nation. Just as Israel was chosen “in Abraham”, God wanted for the new Covenant Community to be chosen “in Christ”. Because Jesus found favour in the Father’s eyes, a blessing was pronounced on Him and his children, as it says in Heb 2:13, “Behold, I and the children God has given me.” And again in Gal 3:14,
“in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith.”
3. God elected People for certain Tasks
When the scriptures speak of election they may also be using the word with reference to a particular service that God requires of the person. However, it is important to note that this is not a reliable indication of their eternal election as children of God. One very prominent example of this kind of election is in Acts 9:15 regarding Paul,
“He is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel.”
In the case of Paul it is reasonable to conclude that this election included his election in Christ for salvation, but other examples in the New Testament demonstrate that this was not always so. Of the twelve apostles chosen by Jesus we read,
“Then Jesus replied, ‘Have I not chosen you, the Twelve? Yet one of you is a devil!’” John 6:70
These men were chosen for the unique task of establishing the Church of Christ on the earth, and yet Judas was not included in the elect of Christ for salvation (John 17:12).
There are many more examples from the Old Testament of this kind of election. For example, some of the Judges in Israel were chosen to be deliverers of Israel from her enemies. Men like Samson (who broke all his Nazirite vows and died as a slave of the Philistines) and Jephthah (who uttered a rash vow and sacrificed his own daughter) were used mightily in the purposes of God but big question marks remain about their eternal salvation.
Other examples from the Old Testament are the kings of foreign nations. We read of Cyrus king of Persia,
“He is my shepherd and will accomplish all that I please; he will say of Jerusalem, ‘Let it be rebuilt,’ and of the temple, ‘Let its foundations be laid.”‘ Is 44:28
Other foreign kings were conspicuously evil and yet chosen by God as instruments of judgement. For example God says of the king of Babylon –
“You are my hammer and weapon of war: with you I break nations in pieces; with you I destroy kingdoms” Jer 51:20
Making your election sure
Having now clarified the different kinds of election that are demonstrated in scripture, I am going to return to the topic of election for salvation and what we can do to make it secure. It is abundantly clear that in the world today there are very many (the majority?) of people who are not God’s elect. At this point in the reading I hope it is self-evident that this is not God’s fault. Our election is not individual, it is corporate. Christ is God’s Covenant Representative, He is the new Abraham, if we are in Him we are chosen. All that anyone need do to be included in God’s holy nation is become a “child of God through faith in Christ” – be “born again”. God has made no secret of his desire that “all men should be saved”. In fact he so loved everyone in the world that he gave his only son that whoever should believe in him could be saved (John 3:16). So why is it that so many people do not go on to receive eternal life? The scripture gives several indications of why some people are never included amongst God’s elect and others, once they get in, do not remain so:
- They have no interest in God’s kingdom
In the parable of the banquet (Luke 14, Mat 22), those who were initially invited had other things that interested them more (eg “I have bought a field”) and so they turned down the invitation. God said of Israel,
“All day long I have held out my hands to a disobedient and obstinate people.” Rom 10:21
- They do not receive sight because they think they can see
The sin of self-righteousness is a sin which kept many from salvation in Jesus’ day. He said to the Pharisees that they were blind because “now that you claim you can see, your guilt remains.” (John 9:41) In another common phrase he expresses a similar sentiment “I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Mark 2:17)
- They have no desire to glorify the Giver of the gifts
Jesus told the parable of those who were made tenants of a vineyard but refused to share the harvest with the owner of the land. They treated the vineyard as though it were of their own making. The parable of the prodigal son gives the same message, a people who delight in the gift of life but do not wish to partake in the giver of life.
- They have no desire for righteousness
The promise of Jesus is “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.” (Mat 5:6) The beginning of the Gospel of John says, “Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil.” (John 3:19)
- They assume incorrectly that they are saved
In the same parable of the wedding banquet (Mat 22), a man is found to be at the wedding but is not wearing the appropriate wedding clothes. He responded to the invitation but he neglected to appropriate the righteousness of Christ. We learn more about where the correct clothing can be found in Rev 3:18,
“I counsel you to buy from Me gold purified by fire, so that you may be rich; and white clothing, so that you may be clothed, and so that the shame of your nakedness does not appear.”
- They become weary in doing good
“Therefore, my brothers, be all the more eager to make your calling and election sure. For if you do these things, you will never fall, and you will receive a rich welcome into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.” 2 Pet 1:10
“These things” refers to the fruitful life described in the previous verse: “goodness, knowledge, self-control, perseverance, godliness, brotherly kindness, love”. The gospel should produce in us both faith and fruitfulness, it is not just knowledge for knowledge’s sake. A faith that produces fruit is “sure” but a faith that is not accompanied by a fruitful life is in danger of falling from the company of the elect.
- They shrink back from faith
“‘But My righteous one will live by faith; and if he shrinks back, I will take no pleasure in him.’ But we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who have faith and preserve their souls.” Heb 10:38,39
If we turn back in fear after we are confronted with the persecutions and troubles that come because of the Word of God, we risk losing the reward of salvation that is promised to the faithful.
The practical application of this for any Christian cannot be over-emphasized. If we want to be included in and remain a part of God’s elect it is vitally important that we remain in Jesus. Jesus put it this way,
“Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are… burned” John 15:5,6
Perhaps that is why it is the “good and faithful” servant that is rewarded and inherits the kingdom with Christ. Believing in Christ secures our entry into the company of the elect but it is an enduring faith that withstands the fiery trials of life that is required. While faith is essential to our salvation, it is not the most important agent. Through faith we access the precious gift of grace. It is not our faith that saves us but the grace of God extended to us in Christ. By faith we abide in the life-sustaining stem of Christ and bear fruit that pleases God. Our hope is not in our ability to “abide”, our hope is that,
“he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.” Phil 1:6
 In the OT the original language is not Greek but if we read the Septuagint translation we find the word “eklegó” is used in the same way as it is in the NT, for example in Deut 14:2