ELECTION God's plan to bring salvation to His people and His world. The doctrine of election is at once one of the most central and one of the most misunderstood teachings of the Bible. At its most basic level, election refers to the purpose or plan of God whereby He has determined to effect His will. Thus election encompasses the entire range of divine activity from creation, God's decision to bring the world into being out of nothing, to the end time, the making anew of heaven and earth. The word “election” itself is derived from the Greek word, eklegomai, which means, literally, “to choose something for oneself.” This in turn corresponds to the Hebrew word, bachar. The objects of divine selection are the elect ones, a term found with increasing frequency in the later writings of the Old Testament and at many places in the New (Matthew 22:14; Luke 18:7; Colossians 3:12; Revelation 17:14). The Bible also uses other words such as “choose,” “predestinate,” “foreordain,” “determine,” and “call” to indicate that God has entered into a special relationship with certain individuals and groups through whom He has decided to fulfill His purpose within the history of salvation.
Israel as the Object of God's Election The doctrine of election is rooted in the particularity of the Judeo-Christian tradition, that is, the conviction that out of all the peoples on earth God has chosen to reveal Himself in a special, unique way to one particular people. This conviction resonates through every layer of Old Testament literature from the early awareness of Israel as “the people of Yahweh” through the Psalms (Psalms 147:19-20, “He sheweth his word unto Jacob, his statutes and his judgments unto Israel. He hath not dealt so with any nation”; compare Isaiah 14:1; Ezekiel 20:5). Five major motifs in the Old Testament portray God's election of Israel.
(1) Election is the result of the sovereign initiative of God. At the very beginning of Israel's role in salvation history is the call of Abraham to leave his homeland for a new one which would be shown unto him (Genesis 12:1-7). This directive came to Abraham from God who also promised to bless his descendants and all peoples on earth through them. While Abraham responded to this call in obedience and faith, his election was not the result of his own efforts, but solely of God's decision. (2) The central word in Israel's vocabulary for describing their special relationship with God was covenant. This covenant was not a contract between equal partners, but a bond established by God's unmerited favor and love. The gracious character of the covenant is a major theme in Deuteronomy. “For thou art an holy people unto the Lord thy God: the Lord thy God hath chosen thee to be a special people unto himself, above all people that are upon the face of the earth. The Lord did not set his love upon you, nor choose you, because ye were more in number than any people; for ye were the fewest of all people” (Deuteronomy 7:6-7). (3) Within the covenanted community God selected certain individuals to fulfill specific functions. The following persons are said to be elected in this sense: Abraham (Nehemiah 9:7), Moses (Psalms 106:23), Aaron (Numbers 16:1-17:13), David (Psalms 78:70), Solomon (1 Chronicles 28:10), and Zerubbabel (Haggai 2:23). Kings, priests, and prophets are all chosen by God, though in different ways and for various purposes. Jeremiah believed that he had been elected and set apart as a prophet even before he was born (Jeremiah 1:4-5). (4) Israel's election was never intended to be a pretext for pride, but rather an opportunity for service. “I the Lord have called thee in righteousness, for a light of the Gentiles” (Isaiah 42:6). From time to time the children of Israel were tempted to presume upon God's gracious favor, to assume, for example, that because the Lord had placed His temple at Jerusalem, they were exempt from judgment. Again and again the prophets tried to disabuse them of this false notion of security by pointing out the true meaning of the covenant and their mission among the nations (Jeremiah 7:1-14; Amos 3:2; Jonah). (5) In the later Old Testament writings, and especially during the intertestamental period, there is a tendency to identify the “elect ones” with the true, faithful “remnant” among the people of God. The birth of the Messiah is seen to mark the dawn of the age of salvation for the remnant (Ezekiel 34:12-13, Ezekiel 34:23-31; Micah 5:1-2). The community of Essenes at Qumran saw themselves as an elect remnant whose purity and faithfulness presaged the Messianic Age.
Election and the New Covenant The early Christians saw themselves as heirs of Israel's election, “a chosen generation, a holy nation, a peculiar people” (1 Peter 2:9). Paul treats this theme most extensively, but we should not overlook its central importance for the entire New Testament. Again, certain individuals are singled out as chosen by God: the twelve apostles (Luke 6:13), Peter (Acts 15:7), Paul (Acts 9:15), and Jesus Himself (Luke 9:35; Luke 23:35). In the Synoptic Gospels the term “elect ones” is always set in an eschatological context, that is, the days of tribulation will be shortened “for the elect's sake, whom he hath chosen” (Mark 13:20). Many of the parables of Jesus, such as that of the marriage feast (Matthew 22:1-14) and that of the laborers in the vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16), illustrate the sovereignty of God in salvation. In John, Jesus is the unmistakable Mediator of election: “Ye have not chosen me, but I have chosen you,” He reminded the disciples (John 15:16). Again, His followers are those who have been given to Him by the Father “before the world was” and “none of them is lost” (John 17:5,John 17:12). Also in John the shadow side of election is posed in the person of Judas, “the son of perdition.” Though his status as one of the elect is called into question by his betrayal of Christ, not even this act was able to thwart the fulfillment of God's plan of salvation.
There are three passages where Paul deals at length with different aspects of the doctrine of election. In the first (Romans 8:28-39) divine election is presented as the ground and assurance of the Christian's hope. Since those whom God has predestinated are also called, justified, and glorified, nothing can separate them from the love of God in Christ Jesus. The second passage (Romans 9-11) is preoccupied with the fact of Israel's rejection of Christ which, in the purpose of God, has become the occasion for the entrance of Gentile believers into the covenant. In the third passage (Ephesians 1:1-12) Paul pointed to the Christocentric character of election: God has chosen us in Christ before the foundation of the world. We can refer to this statement as the evangelical center of the doctrine of election. Our election is strictly and solely in Christ. As the eternal Son, He is along with the Father and the Holy Spirit, the electing God; as the incarnate Mediator between God and humankind, He is the elected One. We should never speak of predestination apart from this central truth.
Election and the Christian Life Paul admonished the Thessalonians to give thanks because of their election (2 Thessalonians 2:13), while Peter said that we should make our “calling and election sure” (2 Peter 1:10). However, in the history of Christian thought few teachings have been more distorted or more misused. The following questions reveal common misperceptions. (1) Is not election the same thing as fatalism? Predestination does not negate the necessity for human repentance and faith; rather it establishes the possibility of both. God does not relate to human beings as sticks and stones but as free creatures made in His own image. (2) If salvation is based on election, then why preach the gospel? Because God has chosen preaching as the means to awaken faith in the elect (1 Corinthians 1:21). We should proclaim the gospel to everyone without exception, knowing that it is only the Holy Spirit who can convict, regenerate, and justify. (3) Does the Bible teach “double predestination,” that God has selected some for damnation as well as some for salvation? There are passages (Romans 9:11-22; 2 Corinthians 2:15-16) which portray God as a potter who has molded both vessels of mercy and vessels of destruction. Yet the Bible also teaches that God does not wish any one to perish but for all to be saved (John 3:16; 2 Peter 3:9). We are not able to understand how everything the Bible says about election fits into a neat logical system. Our business is not to pry into the secret counsel of God but to share the message of salvation with everyone and to be grateful that we have been delivered from darkness into light. (4) Does not belief in election result in moral laxity and pride? Paul says that God chose us “to salvation through sanctification of the Spirit” (2 Thessalonians 2:13). We are to work out our salvation with fear and trembling, even though to be sure, it is God who is at work within us both to will and do His good pleasure (Philippians 2:12-13). The proper response to election is not pride but gratitude for God's amazing grace which saves eternally. Election, then, is neithr a steeple from which we look in judgment on others, nor a pillow to sleep on. It is rather a stronghold in time of trial and a confession of praise to God's grace and to His glory.
These dictionary topics are from the Holman Bible Dictionary, published by Broadman & Holman, 1991. All rights reserved. Used by permission of Broadman & Holman.