The New Testament, on many occasions, speaks of believers as “the elect” (cf. Romans 8:33, Colossians 3:12, 2 Timothy 2:10, etc.). This description was intended to encourage believers in their walk with God; unfortunately, it has become a rather contentious description. Many have deduced from it that God has arbitrarily determined who would be saved and who would be from the beginning and have reduced the concept of faith to the attempt to determine whether one has been considered part of the “elect” or not.
When we hear the word “election” it is easy to begin to think of a political process, electing leaders and the like. The word, in both English and Greek, refer to making a choice and choosing someone. In a political election, leaders are chosen. In religion, election tends to refer to God having chosen individuals or specific groups of people.
Election features prominently in the old covenant between God and Israel. God makes it clear that He chose Israel on account of His love for their fathers (Deuteronomy 4:37). He chose Israel above all the other nations of the earth (Deuteronomy 7:6). This choice was not based on how great Israel was, in terms of size or resources, but because they were few in number and because of God’s promise to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (Deuteronomy 7:7). Israel remains beloved of God in Romans 11:28 on account of their election.
Many things can be learned from Israel’s election. God chose Israel specifically, and their election was not based on any particular virtue they possessed. Nothing prevented God from having chosen the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Greeks, or any other people. The Israelites did not deserve their election in any way, shape, or form.
Yet what did they gain from their election? Israel would be God’s possession, having been given direct and specific revelation regarding God’s nature and will for them, the latter encapsulated in the Law of Moses (Deuteronomy 4:36, 7:6). Therefore, they were granted access to the One True God and the guidelines by which they were to live.
Israel’s election, however, did not automatically grant salvation, eternal life, or even earthly prosperity. Their election granted them the opportunity to serve the Living God and receive His favor, but He made it abundantly clear that disobedience would lead to wrath (Leviticus 26:14-33). Ultimately all Israel would be exiled from their lands because of their disobedience (cf. 2 Kings 17, 2 Chronicles 36). Sadly, Israel took such great pride in being God’s elect people that they felt as if God would deliver them no matter how disobedient they proved to be (cf. Jeremiah 7:3-11).
Not only was it possible for the “elect” in Israel to be condemned, but even those from the “non-elect” could be redeemed, as Paul attests in Romans 2:12-15, 25-29, if they were to come to the knowledge of the One True God and would obey His Law. Election by God, therefore, provides opportunity and access, but it need not be exclusive, and it does not guarantee salvation.
In 1 Peter 2:9, Peter declares that Christians are now the “elect race,” using the terminology of Isaiah 43:20 regarding Israel to now refer to believers in Christ. How did this take place? What is the nature of election in the new covenant?
When considering the nature of election in the New Testament many turn to Romans 9-11 and thus come away with the idea that God’s election is arbitrarily determined beforehand. We must keep context in mind: in Romans 9-11, Paul is speaking most specifically about the Israelites and how God is just in casting off unbelieving Israel while grafting in the believers among the nations.
Nevertheless, it is true that believers have been elected: believers are addressed as the elect (Titus 1:1, 1 Peter 1:1), and they should be certain of their election and should make their calling and election sure (1 Thessalonians 1:4, 2 Peter 1:10).
We should not believe that this election is particular or exclusive to any particular group of people. God wants all men to be saved (1 Timothy 2:4, 2 Peter 3:9); in the ideal, everyone would be the elect. No one is elect because of their nationality, ethnicity, or by virtue of any righteousness, for God shows no partiality and all have sinned (Romans 2:11, 3:23).
But are individuals specifically elected? It is clear that there are times when God does choose particular people for particular purposes, as is evident in the case of Saul of Tarsus (cf. Acts 9:1-16, 22:7-10). Saul did not “deserve” this calling or election, but he still needed to prove obedient to the Lord.
If it may be that God does specifically and individually choose “the elect,” it would be on the same basis as those who are predestined– God’s foreknowledge of their obedience or disobedience, since those whom God predestined by His foreknowledge He called (cf. Romans 8:29-30). The good news of God in Jesus Christ must go out to all men (Matthew 28:18-20, Mark 16:15, 1 Timothy 2:4), and so in that sense everyone is to hear the call of obedience to Jesus Christ. Many may be called, but only a few are chosen (Matthew 22:14); God already knows that many will prove disobedient and rebellious and will not obey His will. Those who obey in faith are God’s chosen people (cf. Colossians 3:12).
What does election grant the Christian? As with Israel, so with the Christian: he is granted access to God the Father through His Son Jesus Christ (Hebrews 4:16), and may learn of the nature and revelation of God in the person of Jesus Christ and the message of Scripture (John 1:18, 2 Timothy 3:16-17, Hebrews 1:3).
Election, by itself, is no guarantee of salvation, just as it was with Israel; those who disobey, even if they were formerly obedient, will receive condemnation (cf. Hebrews 10:26-31, 2 Peter 2:20-22). Those who obey God in faith are the ones who are elect and chosen, regardless of their origins! God’s elect are expected to conform to the standard of conduct to which they have been entrusted, the Gospel of Christ (Romans 6:17, Colossians 3:12): to show love, compassion, and mercy upon others, and to abhor sin (Romans 12:9).
Whether chosen individually by God’s foreknowledge of obedience or directly through choosing God in Christ in obedient faith, the Christian should rejoice in their election, and, as Peter encourages, to make that election sure through their obedience (cf. 2 Peter 1:10). Believers must take care to not become haughty on account of their election, presuming that they are somehow superior to others because of their status in Christ, for no one was elected by their special virtue, since God does not show partiality. In reality, no one deserves God’s election, for we have all sinned; our election is by God’s grace and mercy, and it can be lost if we prove to be disobedient like Israel. Let us enjoy the privileges of election, access to God the Father, present salvation, and the knowledge of the truth, and exhort others to obedient faith so that they may also enjoy the fruits of election!