The doctrine of election is one that can be contentious within the body of Christ. Election is clearly taught in the Bible. But what does it mean? This post will look at some key words in the debate and how they are used in both the Old Testament and the New. And then will try to understand just what the Bible is teaching and its implication in the life of the follower of Jesus.
Election in the Old Testament
It is likely that you will not find the word ‘elect’ or ‘election’ in your translation of the Old Testament. Instead the word that is most commonly used is ‘choose’ or ‘chosen’ . The Hebrew word bāhar (to choose) is used nearly 170 times in the Old Testament. It is used often of people doing the choosing, as in Lot ‘choosing’ the plain country around Sodom (Gen. 13:11), or Moses choosing some to help lead Israel (Ex. 18:25).
But about half the time it is used in regard to God choosing, either a person, a people, or a place. The following list will illustrate some examples of his choosing.
- Neh. 9:7 – Abram is chosen
- Ps. 105:26 – Moses and Aaron are chosen
- 1 Sam. 10:24 – Saul is chosen to be king
- 2 Sam. 6:21 – David is chosen to be king
- 1 Ch. 28:10 – Solomon is chosen to build the temple
- Deut 12:5 – God chooses Jerusalem (this is a frequently mentioned choice)
- 2 Chr. 7:16 – The temple in Jerusalem is chosen
- Deut 18:5 – The Levites are chosen to serve God
- Deut 7:6-7 – Israel is chosen to be God’s people (there are frequent references to this as well)
Individual Election in the Old Testament
As you can see, God chose a number of people in the Old Testament. Abraham, Moses, Aaron, Saul, David, and Solomon are all chosen to perform some specific task or function. And you can find many others that God chose for specific tasks in the life of Israel, even if the word bāhar is not associated with them.
But apart from Abraham, they never seem to be chosen to be in relationship with God. They were already a part of Israel and were chosen to perform some task within God’s holy people. They may have been chosen to lead, to build, or some other task, but individual election in the Old Testament is not for relationship. It is for a specific area of service.
There are indeed some exceptions to the people chosen being a part of Israel. According to Romans 9:17 the Pharaoh of the Exodus was chosen to demonstrate God’s power. And in Isaiah 44:28; 45:1, 13, Cyrus is identified as God’s chosen instrument for restoring Israel back to their land. But even in these cases God is choosing people for a task, not for relationship.
Corporate Election in the Old Testament
I find two groups in the Old Testament that are chosen. The Levites are chosen out of Israel to serve at the tabernacle / temple, and to assist the priests in their duties. But, even though this is a group selection, it is really very similar to the individual election mentioned above. They are chosen, but not to be in relationship with God; they already were in relationship with him. Instead they are chosen for a task.
It is with Israel that we see something different in God’s choosing. While he does indeed have something for them to do, his choosing seems primarily to be relational. In Deuteronomy 7:6 God says to Israel: “The Lord your God has chosen you out of all the peoples on the face of the earth to be his people, his treasured possession.” They were chosen to be God’s treasured possession, a people belonging to God.
Israel, as a people, belonged to God. And in general, God’s provision, promises, rebuke, judgement, and deliverance is directed, not to individuals, but to the nation. Israel was God’s chosen people, and it was in being a part of that chosen people that individuals experienced relationship with God.
While all of Israel generally enjoyed the blessings, and chastisement, that came to Israel, not all of them were really a part of the chosen elect. In 1 Kings you can find the story of Elijah’s contest with the prophets of Baal on Mt Carmel. At the end Elijah flees for his life, takes refuge in a cave, has a pity party, and tells God that he is the only faithful person left. But in 1 Kings 19:18 God tells Elijah that he still has 7000 who have not bowed the knee to Baal. This faithful remnant was the true people of God, the chosen Israel. And this concept of a faithful remnant is common in the prophets and in Romans.
Election in the New Testament
The equivalent family of words in the New Testament is the verb eklego, the adjective eklektos, and the noun ekloge. These words are variously translated in the NIV as chosen, chose, choose, picked, made a choice, election, and elect. Sometimes the word is used of people choosing something or someone. But more commonly it is God who is choosing. The following representative lists will show the usage of these words in the New Testament. Frequently it is God choosing Christ; other times he chooses individuals for a task; and other times the selection is referring to a group, the elect.
Christ is the Chosen One
- Luke 9:35 – This is my Son, whom I have chosen; listen to him.
- Luke 23:35 – let him save himself if he is God’s Messiah, the Chosen One.
- 1 Pet. 2:4 – [Jesus] rejected by humans but chosen by God and precious to him
- 1 Pet. 2:6 – [Jesus] a chosen and precious cornerstone
The Apostles Chosen
- Luke 6:13 – he called his disciples to him and chose twelve of them
- John 6:70 – Have I not chosen you, the Twelve? Yet one of you is a devil!
- Acts 1:2 – through the Holy Spirit to the apostles he had chosen
- Acts 1:24 – Show us which of these two you have chosen (Replacement for Judas)
- Acts 9:15 – This man is my chosen instrument to proclaim my name (God to Ananias about Saul)
- Acts 15:7 – you know that some time ago God made a choice among you (Peter to proclaim to Cornelius)
- Matt 22:14 – For many are invited, but few are chosen.
- Matt. 24:22 – for the sake of the elect those days will be shortened (Matt 24:24, 31; Mark 13:20, 22)
- Luke 18:7 – And will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones
- John 13:18 – I am not referring to all of you; I know those I have chosen.
- John 15:16 – You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you (John 15:19)
- John 15:19 – but I have chosen you out of the world
- Rom. 8:33 – Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen?
- Rom. 9:11 – in order that God’s purpose in election might stand
- Rom 11:5 – at the present time there is a remnant chosen by grace
- Rom. 11:28 – but as far as election is concerned, they are loved
- Eph. 1:4 – For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy
- Col. 3:12 – Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved
- 1 Thess. 1:4 – we know, brothers and sisters loved by God, that he has chosen you
- Tit. 1:1 – an apostle of Jesus Christ to further the faith of God’s elect
- 1 Pet. 1:1 – To God’s elect, exiles scattered throughout the provinces
- 1 Pet. 2:9 – But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation
- Rev. 17:14 – with him will be his called, chosen and faithful followers
Individual Election in the New Testament
It is clear that, just like in the Old Testament, some individuals are chosen for specific tasks. The original twelve, Judas’ replacement, and Saul are all chosen to be apostles, to take the gospel out into the world. While this same word is not used in relation to them, we also see Ananias called to minister to Saul and Barnabas set apart to go out with Paul on his first trip.
We find the same thing happening today when God calls individuals as missionaries, pastors, teachers, or other places of responsibility within the body of Christ. This type of calling, or election, is not for salvation. Instead it is for service.
Corporate Election in the New Testament
In the Old Testament, with Israel, election is primarily a corporate affair. A person is elect, not because of God’s individual selection of the person, but because of their union with Israel. Israel is elect, and so long as you are a part of Israel, you experience the benefits of election.
But does that carry over to the New Testament as well. Does this form of corporate election come into play with the church? I do believe there is evidence in the passages listed above that a case can be made for corporate election in the New Testament being similar to that of the Old.
When you look through the list of passages on election above, you will notice that in a number of them it is Christ that is chosen by God. He is God’s Chosen One (Lk. 9:35). He was chosen before the creation of the world (1 Peter 1:20). Chosen here is a different word, one that implies choosing before hand. It is Christ that God has chosen, from before creation.
An expression that Paul is very fond of is ‘in Christ’. You find it in Ephesians 1:4 when he says “For he chose us in him before the creation of the world“, with the ‘him’ being Christ. We were indeed chosen, or elected. But it was ‘in Christ’ that we were chosen. This is very similar to saying that the Old Testament Jews were chosen ‘in Israel’. I am not chosen individually. I am chosen as a part of the corporate body of Christ.
Other places where Paul uses this expression adds to this idea of our position before God being based on inclusion in Christ rather than as an individual. Below are some of the over 80 times that Paul uses this expression. Not all of them refer to our position in Christ, but most of them do.
- Rom. 6:11 – In the same way, count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus.
- Rom. 6:23 – For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.
- 1 Cor. 1:2 – To the church of God in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be his holy people
- 2 Cor. 5:17 – Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!
- Gal. 3:26 – So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith
- Eph. 1:13 – And you also were included in Christ when you heard the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation.
- Eph. 2:13 – But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ.
- Col. 2:9-10 – For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form, and in Christ you have been brought to fullness.
- 2 Tim. 1:9 – This grace was given us in Christ Jesus before the beginning of time,
I do not stand alone before God. Rather I stand ‘in Christ’ before God. My relationship with God is dependant upon my inclusion in Christ. But which comes first: election; or inclusion in Christ?
Which Comes First? Election? Or Inclusion in Christ?
Am I in Christ because I am elect? Or am I elect because I am in Christ? Or does it even matter? It is likely that most Christians in the 21st century western world would say that I am elected by God and, as one of the elect, find inclusion in Christ. And we say that, not so much because of a Scriptural basis, but because of cultural reasons. We are an individualist society, focused first on the individual, and secondly on the group.
But the New Testament world, as well as that of the Old, was more group oriented. The individual found significance as a member of the group. And the group needs were more important than that of the individual. As you look back through the list of election/choosing passages, you will find that a significant number of the ones that refer to God’s choosing of us seem to reflect that group first mentality.
Many passages refer to ‘the elect’, with the elect being the body of believers. In 1 Thessalonians 1:4 Paul addresses the church with “we know, brothers and sisters loved by God, that he has chosen you“. He is referring to the body of believers, but the ‘you’ is singular. God had chosen them as a singular entity. And in 1 Peter 2:9 Peter calls the ones he writes to “a chosen people“. Here, people can be translated as ‘family’, ‘nation’, or ‘people’. In Peter’s terminology, we are not chosen individuals. We are a chosen group.
If indeed Christ is the ‘chosen one’. And I am called to be ‘in Christ’. Then it would seem reasonable to think that I am chosen, or elect, by virtue of being included in Christ. And I believe that by and large the Scripture bears that out as well. While there are some passages that seem to refer to individuals being elected, not to service, but to relationship, the bulk of the Scripture seems to point in the other way. That I am elect because I am in Christ.
Does It Matter?
Is this just a matter of semantics? Or does it really matter whether election to salvation is individual or corporate? As far as most of us are concerned it is not really all that critical an issue. In either case we are saved by God’s grace through faith in Christ. The impact to us as believers is the same whether we are elected into the body of Christ, or elect because of membership in the body. In both cases we live our lives in the same way. At least, all most.
I say all most because there is a subtle way in which it makes a difference. If I am elect apart from the body, then it stands to reason that I can live as a believer without being connected to the church and its fellowship. But if my salvation is as a member of the body of Christ, then active membership in, and fellowship with, the body is essential.
For myself, I favor the corporate nature of election, and the importance of being an active part of the body. And that includes fellowshipping with a local representation of the universal body of Christ. It is ‘in Christ’ that I encounter God and experience the blessings of sonship. And being ‘in Christ’ should mean connection with others who also are ‘in Christ’. As believers we are called to union together with Christ. The lone Christian is really unknown to the Bible, but is unfortunately all too common an experience in the US.
And for Theologians?
This topic would not really be complete without mentioning that for theologians this is a topic of serious debate. On the one hand are those who see that God has elected me as an individual, independently of anything I might say, do, or believe. On the other hand are those who see my election being the result of responding to his call and becoming a part of the body of Christ.
While at the practical level it seems not to make much difference to us which scenario is true, it is a critical point in a larger theological framework. A framework that describes the divine / human relationship and interaction. For myself, I favor the corporate nature of election and embrace an Arminian view of soteriology. But there are those for whom I have the utmost respect who hold to a very different perspective. It is unfortunate that all too often the differences in these views divide believers for whom Christ gave his life. How much better when we can come together in one heart, mind and spirit, and together represent our Lord in this dark world.