It is important to recognize, when dealing with the subject of divine election, that the concept does not originate in the New Testament. When the New Testament writers–primarily Paul–discuss our election in Christ, they are not coming up with a new concept, but rather are applying an Old Testament concept to New Covenant believers. In order to understand what they mean, it is necessary to go back to the Old Testament and see how those concepts were introduced.
Election in the Old Testament begins with Abraham. (Cases could be made that it begins with Adam, or Abel, or Enoch, or Noah, but the election of Israel as a nation that is taken up in the New Testament begins with Abraham.) Genesis 12:1-3 records God’s call of Abraham:
The LORD had said to Abram, “Leave your country, your people and your father’s household and go to the land I will show you.
I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you;
I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing.
I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse;
and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.”
Scripture does not record why Abraham was chosen. Joshua 24:2-3 records that Abraham’s father “worshiped other gods”; it is probable that in his early life, Abraham had done so as well. However Nehemiah 9:8 suggestively says “You [God] found his [Abraham’s] heart faithful before you, and made with him the covenant.” At any rate, Abraham was chosen.
Genesis 12:7 and 13:14-17 reaffirm God’s promises to Abraham, and chapter 15 records God’s covenant with him. It is a covenant of promise, also called an unconditional covenant: there are no stipulations upon Abraham for receiving the covenant. God stipulates Himself to essentially three promises in chapters 12-15:
- Descendants: Abraham will have a child, and through that child, a nation of descendants that are uncountable.
- Land: Abraham’s descendants will inherit the entirety of the land at that time known as Canaan.
- Blessing: Abraham and his descendants will be blessed; more importantly, the rest of the nations of the world will be blessed through him.
It is in this context that we read the crucial verse which Paul quotes in support of justification through faith (Rom. 4:3; Gal. 3:6): “Abram believed the LORD, and he credited it to him as righteousness” (15:6). God makes no stipulations upon Abraham to receive the promises of the covenant, but Abraham’s faith is credited as righteousness.
In chapter 17, God adds the stipulation of circumcision to the covenant. This is not a “work” in the sense of earning the blessings of the covenant–most of Abraham’s descendants would be infants at the time they were circumcised, and have no choice in the matter–but it is a “work” in the sense that Paul later uses the term: a mark of identification by which one may be recognized as being in the covenant. The New Perspective suggests that first-century Jews never imagined that circumcision earned their way into the covenant; but circumcision and other aspects of the Torah that separated Jews from Gentiles–dietary laws and feast days being two others–identified them and marked them as being part of the covenant. Paul makes the point that since righteousness was credited to Abraham before he received the sign of circumcision, it is not dependent upon circumcision (Rom. 4:9-12). It is rather dependent upon faith: simply believing the promise that God made to Abraham.
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