The doctrine of election (whether or not you use the Calvinist hermeneutic) tends to provoke polar responses: you either love it or you hate it. This, to me at least, is an indication of its relevance and role in the Christian life. Something that provokes this much strong feeling – be it relief or hatred – is worth investigating. Careful inquiry will reveal that it is a golden thread running through both the Old and New Testaments.
Going right back to Genesis we can see God choosing people for His purposes throughout salvation history (though the commentary on this is often found in the Prophets and Paul). God chose Noah and his family to survive the flood and repopulate the earth. He chose Abraham and called him out of Ur of Chaldea and Haran into the land of Canaan. He created Isaac as the heir of promise, choosing him over Ishmael, and He chose Jacob to continue the line of promise, rather than Esau, renaming him Israel. God chose Joseph as his instrument to prepare the way for Israel’s sojourn in Egypt, and He chose Judah as line of Israel’s kings.
Moving to Exodus, we find God’s sovereign providence and election at work in the life of Moses. God chose Moses to survive Pharaoh’s slaughter of Israel’s children. God chose Moses to be His prophet to lead Israel out of Egypt, and He chose Aaron to be Moses’ spokesman and “aide-de-camp”. God chose the Pharaoh of the Exodus (who remains nameless in the Bible) to be a vessel of dishonour, a vessel of wrath, and sovereignly hardened his heart. When they left Egypt, God renewed His promise to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and made a special covenant with Israel: He chose them to be His special people. Among the tribes, God chose the children of Levi to be the guardians of Tabernacle/Temple worship and to be teachers of the Torah, and He chose Aaron’s line to serve as priests (cohanim).
In Ruth we find Boaz, a type of Christ, choosing Ruth to be His wife, while in Judges, God chooses the men whom He will use to cast off Israel’s oppressors. In Samuel, the people reject God as their King, and choose Saul. But God makes a choice, and chooses David to sire the line of Israel’s true kings – the man after His own heart. Moving on into the history books and the Prophets, we find God choosing men to be His spokesmen to Israel and the nations, to bring about repentance, and try as they might, like Jonah, to get away, God’s purpose prevails.
In the New Testament we find the same process at work, and we should not be surprised at this, for “Jesus Christ is the same: today, yesterday, and forever.” God raises up John the Baptist, the last of the Old Covenant prophets, to prepare the way of the LORD, the Messiah. God chooses Mary to be the mother of Jesus, and Joseph to be His adoptive father. God sends Jesus into Egypt in order to fulfil the prophecy, “Out of Egypt I called my Son.” Jesus chooses His disciples, the Twelve (including Judas), and appoints them Apostles (meaning in Greek: those sent out with a commission and authority to perform it). Among the Twelve are the ones chosen to form the so-called “inner circle”: Peter, James, and John. Following the Ascension, Christ called another to follow Him, and appointed him Apostle to the Gentiles: Saul of Tarsus, who became Paul.
On the bigger scale, God chose the Church, Jews and Gentiles, forming them into Christ’s Body, also known as His Bride. A number of Scriptures describes the Church as “the Elect”, which means “the Chosen”, a term found across a range of human authors.
“And except those days should be shortened, there should no flesh be saved: but for the elect’s sake those days shall be shortened.” -Matt. 24:22
“And shall not God avenge his own elect, which cry day and night unto him, though he bear long with them?” -Luke 18:7
“Who shall lay any thing to the charge of God’s elect? It is God that justifies.” -Rom. 8:33
“Elect according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, through sanctification of the Spirit, unto obedience and sprinkling of the blood of Jesus Christ: Grace unto you, and peace, be multiplied.” -1 Pet. 1:2
“The elder unto the elect lady and her children, whom I love in the truth; and not I only, but also all they that have known the truth” -2 Jn. 1:1
There are of course Scriptures regarding God’s election that make us uncomfortable, in particular, Paul’s Epistle to the Romans. But consider this: nothing that Paul expounds is restricted to him. His true wisdom comes from Christ (Gal. 1:12), and much of what he writes is commentary on truths that were already revealed in the Law and the Prophets. Christ Himself said, “Many are called, but few are chosen.” (Matt. 20:16; 22:14)
Paul has a number of points he wishes to communicate when he mentions how God chose us.
At one turn, he chooses to emphasise the idea that God is sovereign and Lord. God has the right to do what He wishes with His own things: “ Has not the potter power over the clay, of the same lump to make one vessel unto honour, and another unto dishonour?” (Rom. 9:21).
At another, he links election to grace, salvation, and honour. So that no one may boast in God’s presence that he had saved himself, which would be a terrible insult to Christ, God has ordained that salvation should not be of works, but by the free gift of grace, that Christ may have the honour due His name. Now at this point you may say, “What has this to do with God choosing us? Don’t we choose to avail ourselves of the grace to be saved?” Well, you’d have a point if this discussion of grace, works, and honour were carried out in isolation, but the fact is that passages that discuss it also mention God’s choice in the same breath: e.g. Rom. 9:11-16; 1 Cor. 1:27-29; Eph. 1:4-6.
In yet another place Paul uses the doctrine of election to bring comfort and hope to struggling Christians. “But we are bound to give thanks always to God for you, brethren beloved of the Lord, because God has from the beginning chosen you to salvation through sanctification of the Spirit and belief of the truth” (2 Thess. 2:13)
The doctrine of election is one which has spawned much controversy: but this in itself indicates its importance to us. An emotional response to such verses should highlight the need for us to meditate on them. The Romans 9 text on predestination should be read in its proper context, which is to give comfort and warmth to the Romans, assuring them of God’s steadfast and invincible love for them.
“And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose. For whom he did foreknow, he also did predestine to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brethren. Moreover whom he did predestine, them he also called: and whom he called, them he also justified: and whom he justified, them he also glorified.What shall we then say to these things? If God be for us, who can be against us? He that spared not his own Son, but delivered him up for us all, how shall he not with him also freely give us all things?”