The term "elect" means essentially "to choose." It involves discriminatory evaluation of individuals, means, ends, or objects with a view to selecting one above the others, although not necessarily passing negative judgment on those others. It also involves the will, in that a determination is made, a preference expressed that one seeks to bring to reality. In that preference is expressed, the idea of bestowing favor or blessing is often present. After Judah had fallen because of her sin in 586 b.c., the prophet Zechariah proclaimed forgiveness, saying God would again "choose" (show favor to) Jerusalem ( 2:12 ), and he was told "Proclaim further: This is what the Lord Almighty says: My towns will again overflow with prosperity, and the Lord will again comfort Zion and choose Jerusalem'" ( 1:17 ).
In the Scriptures the term "choose" is used of both God and human beings. With respect to human beings, it covers all human decisions. We choose husbands or wives ( Gen 6:2 ), working companions ( Acts 15:40 ), where to live ( Gen 13:11 ), and our way of life, whether good or bad ( 1 Peter 4:3 ). Sometimes the choice thrust on us is of the utmost consequence. We may choose life or death ( Deut 30:19 ; 2 Kings 18:32 ); we may choose to serve (or not to serve) God ( Joshua 24:15 ). Our choices are seen to be consistent with what we are. A good tree bears good fruit, a brackish spring pours forth brackish water, and the pig returns to wallowing in the mire.
God also makes choices and by a large margin, the term "choose" is used in Scripture to refer to the choices of God rather than human choices. Indeed, we often do not know what to choose ( Php 1:22 ) and often our choices are wrong and need to be overridden by God. David chose to build a temple for God, but was told by God, "Solomon your son is the one who will build my house and my courts, for I have chosen him" ( 1 Chron 28:6 ). What human beings should ideally do is choose what is right and pleasing to God ( Isa 56:4 ). If we adjust our choices to God's choices (line our wills up with his will), we will have the fullest of God's blessings.
Since it is true that mere human choices are made according to what the person is, it goes without saying that God's choices are made in accordance with who God is. God's choices and decisions are fully consistent with his eternal wisdom, goodness, justice, fairness, and love. Nothing that God chooses to do is mean-spirited, vindictive, or wrong. God cannot act any other way than consistently with his eternal divine nature. For this reason, human beings may trust God to do what is right, and our highest good is to choose the will of God for ourselves.
This does not mean that we will always understand God's ways and the choices he makes. Often we will not. There are times when the ways of God are decidedly not our ways and his thoughts are past finding out. When Habakkuk was confronted by his own people's sin, he cried out for an answer as to why God seemingly chose to do nothing about it. "How long, O Lord, must I call for help? Why do you tolerate wrong?" (1:2-3) was his question. But the answer was even more disturbing than the problem. God had chosen to use the Babylonians to punish sinful Judah (1:12-13). The Lord had determined that judgment would come upon Judah, but he also determined that Babylon would be held accountable for its sins, and in the end "the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea" (2:13-14). God would triumph and Habakkuk was to live by faith in God, because God's choices, no matter how inexplicable they might be, in the end, produce what is best (2:4; 3:19).
God's choices not only arise from within his own eternal being and are consistent with what he is, but they are also based on his own divinely chosen plan. This renders them purposeful rather than arbitrary. They are not a randomly chosen collection of Acts or decisions that have no inner coherence. Rather, according to an eternal plan, based on God's goodness, grace, and love, he weaves his will into the fabric of fallen human history and there triumphs ( Eph 1:9-12 ). Again, we might not always be able to see the ultimate intent of that plan but we may live in the assurance that it is operative in our lives and that it takes precedence over lesser plans and intents, no matter how urgent and all-encompassing they may seem at the moment. The ultimate explanation awaits its appointed time; it will certainly come and will not prove false ( Hab 2:2-3 ).
God's Election of Angels. There is only one reference to elect angels in the Scripture ( 1 Tim 5:21 ). In this passage Paul is admonishing Timothy in the presence of God, Jesus Christ, and the elect angels to live a godly life. Here, the angels are described as elect, in all probability because of their confirmed goodness or perfection. Just as God and Jesus Christ are unalterably good, so are these angels of God, and we are to live in the presence of every form of ultimate goodness with that as a reference point.
God's Election of Israel. Both the Old and the New Testaments affirm the gracious election of Israel. It is clearly stated in terms such as these: "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" ( Deut 7:6 ). There is an inexplicable mystery in this. Israel was not chosen because they were better, more faithful, more numerous, or more obedient than anyone else. The only reason given for Israel's election is the love of God" Because he loved your forefathers and chose their descendants after them, he brought you out of Egypt by his presence and his great strength" ( Deut 4:37 ). The election of Israel was structured within the covenant that God made with his people. By accepting the terms of the covenant that signaled their election, Israel was privileged to experience a personal relationship with God. But it also brought with it a heavy responsibility. They were to be obedient to God and follow his commands implicitly. If they refused to do God's will they would experience the heavy hand of God's judgment to the same degree that they had experienced the grace and blessing of God. "You only have I chosen [known] of all the families of the earth; therefore I will punish you for all your sins" ( Am 3:2 ). But, as the apostle Paul saw it, the gifts and calling of God are irrevocable ( Rom 11:29 ) and Israel's disobedience did not cancel her out, but opened the way for everyone to enter in. This, to Paul, was perhaps the ultimate mystery: One man's fall (Adam) meant the redemption of many and one nation's sin (Israel) meant the inclusion of all. The grace of God was so vast and overwhelming that it broke apart every conventional limiting structure through that very limiting structure itself (election).
God's Election of the Place of Worship. God chose Israel to be his people and to reveal the truth about himself to them. This included the proper way to worship him, so he also chose the land they should dwell in ( Deut 10:11 ; 1 Kings 8:48 ), the mountain on which worship should take place ( Psalm 68:16 ), the city where this worship should occur ( 1 Kings 8:48 ; 11:13 ; 14:21 ), and a temple for the people to worship in ( 1 Kings 9:3 ; 2 Kings 21:7 ). God also chose the priesthood ( Numbers 16:5 Numbers 16:7 ) as well as the way sacrifices should be offered.
God's Election of People to an Office. In order for Israel and later the church to function as God's people, specific functions of leadership needed to be exercised and God's choices needed to be honored. If the wrong people led, as was too often the case, disaster frequently followed. When God was consulted and his guidance was followed, blessing also ensued. The two areas where official leadership was exercised in the Old Testament were in the civil and the religious spheres. The civil leader was the king and Israel was told "be sure to appoint over you the King the lord your God chooses" ( Deut 17:15 ). That was the general rule. Specific kings were also pointed out, such as Saul ( 1 Sam 9:15-17 ), David ( 1 Sam 16:1-12 ), and Solomon ( 1 Chron 28:5-7 ; 2 Chron 1:8-10 ). God also made it known when he had not chosen someone ( 1 Sam 16:5-10 ). In the religious sphere, the tribe of Levi was chosen as the priests ( Deut 21:5 ; 2 Chronicles 29:5 2 Chronicles 29:11 ) and Aaron to be the high priest ( Numbers 17:5 Numbers 17:8 ; 1 Sam 2:27-28 ). In the New Testament, the apostles were originally chosen by Christ ( Luke 6:13 ; Acts 1:2 ), but then after Christ's ascension, the church needed to fill the place of Judas. Two men were selected and then they prayed, "Lord, you know everyone's heart. Show us which of these two you have chosen to take over this apostolic ministry" ( Acts 1:24-26 ).
God's Election of Individuals for Various Reasons. In addition to specific offices, God often chooses individuals for special tasks or for special reasons. There are many examples of this in both the Old and New Testaments. In the Old Testament, God chose Bezalel ( Exod 31:2 ; 35:30-33 ), Abraham ( Gen 18:19 ), Jacob ( Psalm 135:4 ), Judah ( 1 Chron 28:4 ; Psalm 78:68 ), Moses ( Psalm 106:23 ), and Zerubbabel ( Hag 2:23 ). In the New Testament, God chose special individuals as witnesses to Christ's resurrection ( Acts 10:41 ), Paul to be an apostle to the Gentiles ( Acts 9:15 ; 22:13-14 ), Peter to be the first to minister to the Gentiles ( Acts 15:7 ), and Barnabas to accompany Paul on his first missionary journey ( Acts 13:2-3 ).
God's Election of the Messiah. The redemptive ministry of God's Anointed One, the Messiah, was carefully planned for by God. The Messiah, his own Son Jesus Christ, was the Chosen One, par excellance. Through prophetic utterances in the Old Testament there gradually accumulated a virtually complete picture of who the Messiah was to be, what he would do, and the consequences of his ministry. Isaiah 42:1 speaks of him as "My chosen one, in whom I delight." Jesus heard these very words on the Mount of Transfiguration ( Luke 9:35 ) and his tormenters hurled these words at him while he was on the cross, fulfilling the prophecies spoken of old ( Luke 23:35 ). Peter later reflects on Jesus' chosenness and speaks of it as eternal ( 1 Peter 1:20 ), as indeed it was, and emphasizes Jesus' divinely chosen task ( 2:4-5 ) and his chosen place as cornerstone of the church ( 2:6 ).
God's Election of Means to Accomplish Ends. In some instances the specific ways God chooses to accomplish his purposes are emphasized. This is usually to highlight that God's ways are not the ways human beings would have chosen. So Paul points out that God has chosen the foolish, weak, and lowly things, from the world's point of view as the instruments of mighty saving grace ( 1 Cor 1:27-28 ). James says God chooses the poor to be rich in faith ( James 2:5 ).
God's Election to Salvation of Believers and the Believing Community. In Scripture salvation is considered the work of God. People are lost and it is God alone who saves them; beside him there is no other savior ( Isa 43:11 ) and no other plan of salvation ( Acts 4:12 ). Whatever it be, whether false gods, other human beings, angels or other supernatural beings, or even ourselves they cannot save us. Because it is God alone who saves, those who are saved are seen to be the ones whom God has chosen (or elected) to be saved. This does not mean that they were not in some way involved in their salvation, but it does mean that God took the initiative, effected the plan, provided the grace, and deserves all the credit for the salvation of his people. None who is ultimately redeemed can boast that they saved themselves or that they added anything to the salvation that they received through Jesus Christ.
Those who are saved, the believers in Jesus Christ, are called "the elect (chosen)" ( Matt 24:22 ; Rom 8:33 ; Col 3:12 ; Titus 1:1 ; Rev 17:14 ). This is based on Old Testament usage, where Israel is God's elect community. In the New Testament, the believers are God's elect. They are called the elect because God chose them to be saved ( Matt 22:14 ; John 6:37 John 6:39 ; John 15:16 John 15:19 ; Acts 13:48 ; Rom 11:5 ; 1 Thess 1:4 ). This election is understood to be an eternal act in accordance with God's foreknowledge or predetermination ( Eph 1:4 ; 1 Peter 1:1-2 ). The term is applied to those who believe and also to potential believers those whom God has yet to save are called the elect ( 2 Tim 1:9 ).
Inasmuch as God has chosen some to be saved, he has also chosen how he will save them. Jesus the Messiah is God's Chosen One and believers are chosen in him ( Eph 1:4 ). God chooses to regenerate through the word of truth ( James 1:18 ), the work of the Holy Spirit ( 1 Peter 1:1-2 ) and personal faith ( 2 Thess 2:13 ).
God's elect are chosen specifically to show both God's praise ( 1 Peter 2:9 ) and to live in obedience to Christ ( 1 Peter 1:2 ). As God's chosen ones they are protected by him God works everything together for their good ( Rom 8:28 ), none can bring any charge against them ( Rom 8:33 ), and nothing can separate them from the love of God in Jesus Christ the Lord ( Rom 8:39 ).
As with Israel in the Old Testament, so with the believers in the New Testament, the only reason given for why God chose someone to salvation is his love ( Eph 1:4-5 ).
Conclusion. Scripture presents God as a loving, personal being who created the universe and is intimately involved in its affairs, maintaining it and working out everything according to a benevolent, eternal plan. In order to accomplish this he elects (chooses) that certain things be done, that certain people do them, that it be done a certain way, and that, in the end, his redemptive purposes be accomplished. When human beings acknowledge God's choices by participating in them, they find life and blessing at its fullest. If they reject his choices, God will still accomplish his ultimate ends, but they suffer the consequences that attend the rejection of God's will.
Walter A. Elwell
Bibliography. G. C. Berkouwer, Divine Election; D. A. Carson, Divine Sovereignty and Human Responsibility; L. Coenen, NIDNTT, 1:533-43; F. Davidson, Pauline Predestination; G. Quell, TDNT, 4:145-68; H. H. Rowley, The Biblical Doctrine of Election; G. Schrenk, TDNT, 4:172-92; H. Seebass, TDOT, 2:73-87; N. Turner, Christian Words.
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of
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Bibliography InformationElwell, Walter A. "Entry for 'Elect, Election'". "Evangelical Dictionary of Theology".