Divine election. In our day some may think this is a reference to the political ascendancy of Barak Obama; Oprah Winfrey seemed to have such an opinion.1 Yet as much as we like (or maybe not like) our president, in Scripture there is a different sort of election that is spoken of that is much more mysterious and glorious than the rising and falling of political regimes. In Ephesians 1:3, 4 we read the following passage:
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, that we should be holy and blameless before him.
The word translated “chose us” is the Greek word eklegein. It has a range of usage but its meaning is to choose out, select or elect for some purpose.2 The biblical teaching on election is that God chooses to save people from sin, death and hell completely by his grace and not because people are so fly. This is an issue that followers of Jesus have wrestled with, debated over the centuries and around which there have been various agreements and disagreements. With the doctrine of divine election we would be wise to avoid two extremes. First, we cannot claim to know too much about what God knows and how he does everything. Second, we cannot be silent where God reveals to us in Scripture, the truth about his grace being poured out on people.
There have been several views over history as to what it means for God to choose and save people. What we must not say is that God plays favorites or chooses people based on their merit or anything about them. We will cover three views on election that Christians hold in a moment, but now I just want to reference both Old and New Testament passages which teach that God does indeed show grace and mercy to those who are undeserving.
The Old Testament
In the Old Testament we read the background for God’s work to save and redeem a people from sin and death from all nations on the earth. He begins by making a covenant, a promise, to a guy named Abraham. His promise was to bless him and make him a great nation and that his descendants would be innumerable. Furthermore, all the nations of the world would be blessed through his offspring (See Genesis 12 and 15). This of course foreshadowed the coming of Jesus, who descended from Abraham, to be the savior of the world. His saving work is applied in time and history to all those who believe in him, trust him and follow him. In the Old Testament we also read the following in Deuteronomy 7:7-8 regarding Israel:
It was not because you were more in number than any other people that the Lord set his love on you and chose you, for you were the fewest of all peoples, but it is because the Lord loves you and is keeping the oath that he swore to your fathers, that the Lord has brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt.
Why did God choose Abraham? Why did God choose Israel? Because they were a great people, or were better than anyone else? No, God simply chose them to be his own because of his goodness, love and redemptive purposes.
The New Testament
In the New Testament there are three primary words that speak to God’s choosing of his people. The first, as mentioned before is ekloge (and its associated word group) which carries the meaning of being chosen or elected, being chosen by God. We find it here in Ephesians 1:4 and nineteen other times in the NT. Second, the word pro orizein, or predestined, is also used to speak of God’s people. Predestination deals with God’s determining something before the fact or to ordain that something would come to pass in time. This word is used in Ephesians 1:5, 11; Romans 8:29, 30; Acts 4:28; 1 Cor 2:7. Finally, the word foreknow or pro ginoskein is used to speak of all who belong to God. He knows people will come to him before it happens in history and this word is used in Romans 8:29, 11:2; 1 Peter 1:1,2.
Three Views about How/Why God Elects
There have been several ways that Christians have attempted to understand God’s choosing of his people. The following are but three ways others have attempted to grasp this deep truth. All of these have been held by people who deeply trust Jesus in the gospel so though I favor one of them, they are all respectable views. Yet as will be seen, all cannot be true.
In this view, God chooses to save people based only upon his grace and nothing else. There is no merit or condition in us, that requires God to save and forgive us. This does not mean that God’s election is also the basis for people’s condemnation. Scripture is clear that we are guilty before God and are separated from him due to our sin and our own choices (see Isaiah 53, Psalm 51:1-5; Romans 1-6). We are saved by God’s grace, but we are quite lost on our own. Unconditional election teaches that God intervenes through the gospel to rescue us from our self deceived, self destructive, blind and selfish ways that alienate us from God and one another. We deserve his opposition/wrath, yet he lavishes upon us grace and mercy through Jesus Christ. Finally, the motifs used to describe us apart from God are revealing. We are seen as lost, blind, spiritually dead, enemies of God, not wanting or able to submit to God. Something had to change in our condition and it was the purpose and action of God which found us, opened our eyes, gave new life, made us friends with God now wanting to worship and follow him. The late theologian Anthony Hoekema sums up this view well:
God the Father chose us to be saved not because of any merit he foresaw in us but only on the basis of our predetermined oneness with Christ.3
The problem some have with this view is that it leaves unanswered the question as to why God chooses certain people and could appear arbitrary. Of course, this view gives no other reason but God’s grace and mercy for his forgiveness offered to the guilty.
Election based on Foreseen Faith
Others hold that God does indeed choose to save people but he makes this choice based upon the faith he foresees they will have. God knows all events, choices and people in all times and knows which ones will choose to believe in him and follow him. In other words, God chooses people based on what they will choose in their lives. This view is sometimes called election according to foreknowledge. This actually sounds great because our destiny is really up to us. There is only one problem with this. The prophets of the Old Testament, Jesus himself and the writers of the New Testament simply never teach this. There are three places in the New Testament where God speaks of his foreknowledge and the salvation of people: Romans 8:26-30, 1 Peter 1:1, 2 and Romans 11:2. In each case what is foreknown is the people not simply whether or not they will have faith. Romans 8:26-30 actually teaches that God foreknows, predestines, calls and saves his people. 1 Peter speaks of “the elect exiles” in various parts of the world who are being saved, changed and coming to obedience to Jesus “according to the foreknowledge of God the Father”. Finally, Ephesians 1 is very clear that God’s choosing took place in eternity past, before any of us even existed. He chose us in him before the foundation of the world. God was at work before we even were. That blows up my head in a good way.
Corporate Election “in Him”
Finally, another very interesting view is that God chooses all people who are “in Him”. In other words, he elects or chooses to save people through Jesus, but not particular individuals. This view is attractive for several reasons. First, Scripture does speak of election in corporate terms. God saves a people, God saves a church, not just isolated individuals. Ephesians 1 teaches that God chose us, Romans 8 teaches that he saves those whom he foreknew. Secondly, this view teaches that we are saved “in Him” or by our union with Jesus Christ. This is a biblical truth that should be highlighted as we are not chosen or saved apart from Jesus.4 However, it seems that this view misses a very significant point. The church is comprised of individuals so if he knows the group of those who will be saved, he also knows the individuals who make up the group. Second, there are many passages that deal with Gods calling of individuals. Furthermore, the Scriptures do show us that God chooses, calls and saves individuals thereby grafting them into the church. The apostle Paul did not choose Jesus when Jesus knocked him down, put a light in his eyes and told him that he would be God’s messenger to the non Jewish world (See Act 9 for the story). Acts 13:48 describes a scene where many Gentiles (non Jewish people) heard the gospel and it records that “as many as were appointed to eternal life believed”. This was a group individuals. Finally, the gospel of John teaches us that “that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out” (John 6:37) and “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day.” (John 6:44). So while I find this view attractive5 in some ways, it seems to fall short regarding some important issues with election.
Some Strong Warnings
Christians in history, specifically in traditions that have followed the biblical doctrine of unconditional election, have acted as if they were God and knew who was and was not chosen. Only God knows his own mind on these matters. We have zero knowledge, let me said that again, we have zero knowledge as to who, how many, when, where or why God will save people from this moment forward. To act like we know the mind of God and who he will ultimately save is arrogant, proud and smells of some sick religious elitism. Additionally, many followers of Jesus have taken pride in “being of the chosen folk” which is an attitude in direct contradiction to Ephesians 1. We have no pride, no boasting, nothing special about us-we are only thankful to God for his love and grace. Furthermore, we know God has chosen and saved his people, so that we might worship God for his mercy. What we do know is that God is at work saving a multitude from every tribe, tongue and nation on the earth (Revelation 5:9,10). For all we know, every soul on earth today could be chosen. We do not have a black light which we use to scan people’s foreheads for some hidden fluorescent word “chosen”. Rather, we love and share the gospel with all people, trusting God that the gospel is the power of God for salvation of all who believe (Romans 1:16). One final warning on the other side of the coin. To make ourselves the source of our own salvation belittles the grace and glory of God in the cross. In Jesus, God is rescuing sinful people who then become worshippers knowing that they are not worthy of such lavish grace. So what shall be our path? Another word in Ephesians one provides great insight for how we should see ourselves and the world around us.
God uses some wonderful language to describe his relationship to his people. He presents himself as a loving Father who adopts children into his family by pardoning their sins and welcoming them home. This is the work of Jesus in the world today, he is adopting a big family which he loves. All who hear the gospel and respond to him in faith he welcomes home with open arms. Rather than getting into worthless theological debates about who exactly is chosen and who is not, we should live on his mission of sharing life changing good news. We then let the Father be the Father as his mercy is displayed in people’s lives. We become his children by faith and worship together in the knowledge of his adopting love that rescues us out of sin and death.
Humbled by the gracious gift of God in Jesus-in whom we are blessed with every spiritual blessing,
Reid S. Monaghan
1. Oprah referred to President Obama during the 2008 presidential campaign with the rather odd title of “the one” - http://edition.cnn.com/2007/POLITICS/12/08/oprah.obama/index.html
2. Timothy Friberg, Barbara Friberg and Neva F. Miller, vol. 4, Analytical Lexicon of the Greek New Testament, Baker’s Greek New Testament library (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books, 2000), 138.
3. Anthony Hoekema, Saved by Grace (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989) 56,.
4. See Hoekema, 56, 57. His treatment rightly incorporates unconditional election with that of union with Christ. We recommend this book for any library for those wrestling with these issues.
5. I find Paul Copan’s short summaryof this view helpful. That’s Just Your Interpretation —Responding to Skeptics who Challenge Your Faith (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2001) 84-89. Copan follows the work of William K. Klein, The New Chosen People: A Corporate View of Election (Grand Rapids: Zondervan 1990).