The doctrine of election is a controversial point that is often misunderstood. The scriptures plainly teach that we are chosen in Christ, the elect of God. The difficulty comes in explaining how this is the case. Some will deny the election of God altogether to maintain their particular doctrine and beliefs. Others will take election beyond how the scripture describe. Our analysis for this study will be in Ephesians 1:3.
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. (Ephesians 1:3–4 ESV)
The imagery of being chosen comes from the Old Testament. Israel was chosen by God. Listen to how Moses describes the selection of Israel in Deuteronomy 7.
“For you are a people holy to the LORD your God. The LORD your God has chosen you to be a people for his treasured possession, out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth. 7 It was not because you were more in number than any other people that the LORD set his love on you and chose you, for you were the fewest of all peoples, 8 but it is because the LORD loves you and is keeping the oath that he swore to your fathers, that the LORD has brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt. (Deuteronomy 7:6–8 ESV)
There was nothing that Israel did to warrant their selection as God’s people. God simply said, “You are my people” and therefore Israel was set apart from the world to be his people. Deuteronomy 7-9 constantly repeat that it was nothing in the people of Israel that caused their election. They were not chosen by God for who they were or what they had done. They were simply chosen by God. Notice how the words of Deuteronomy 7 strongly parallel Ephesians 1:3. Paul says that we were chosen to be a holy and blameless people. Moses says the same to Israel that they are a holy people to the Lord, chosen to be his treasured possession.
Before the foundation of the world. Notice when Paul said this choosing occurred. Paul says that “we were chosen in him before the foundation of the world.” This tells us something critically important. This is why I know our election cannot be based on our actions. God chose us before the creation. Before the worlds were established we were selected. Before anything was ever made and before any human walked the earth, God says that he chose us in Christ. How could God choose us by our actions? Not only had we not been created yet but God would tell that there is no human who is righteous. This is a powerful message. God chose us like he chose Israel. There is nothing inherently good about us that deserves God’s attention to us. Those who are in Christ cannot look at themselves and think that there is any room for boasting.
Before anyone was made, God decided that he was going to have a people that would belong to him. God was going to have people who would be set apart for him. Election means that the existence of the people of God can be explained only on the basis of God’s character, plan, and action, not on some quality in the people who are chosen. The initiative is always based on God’s grace. Before the foundation of the world were laid, God had determined that all who believed on his Son should be saved.
So what does it mean to be chosen? I suggest to you that there is a very important answer that can be easily overlooked. The answer is found by looking to the scriptures to see how God elects. God chose a people (Israel) to be his from the beginning. This is how the scriptures discuss “choosing” (Deuteronomy 4:37; 7:6; 10:15; 14:2; Isaiah 14:1; 41:8; 49:7; 65:9; Ezekiel 20:5 – chosen but none but Joshua and Caleb made it). I will read with you a few of these passages so you can see how God describes his election.
For the LORD will have compassion on Jacob and will again choose Israel, and will set them in their own land, and sojourners will join them and will attach themselves to the house of Jacob. (Isaiah 14:1 ESV)
But you, Israel, my servant, Jacob, whom I have chosen, the offspring of Abraham, my friend; 9 you whom I took from the ends of the earth, and called from its farthest corners, saying to you, “You are my servant, I have chosen you and not cast you off”; 10 fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand. (Isaiah 41:8–10 ESV)
There is clearly a corporate dimension to God’s election. God does not say that he is selecting one individual but a whole body of people that God calls the offspring of Abraham. God declares he would have compassion and choose to have a people again, a new Israel. Isaiah pictures people from all over the world joining themselves to this new body of people (Isaiah 14).
It was God’s intention to create for himself a people perfectly conformed to the likeness of his Son (Romans 8:29-30). What is important to consider is that Israel’s election had no direct bearing on their personal salvation. Was any person who was an Israelite saved from spiritual destruction simply because God chosen them to belong to Israel? While the Jews thought “yes,” Jesus and the apostles taught “no.” Paul carefully argued that not all of physical Israel belong to the spiritual Israel who were in relationship with the Father (Romans 9:6-7) and that not all of Abraham’s children were spiritual children of the Father (Romans 4:11). Election did not negate the necessity for a heart response to that calling.
One of the best examples of this truth is found in the wilderness wanderings. The men of war consisted of 603,550 men. Yet only two men, Joshua and Caleb, were granted access to the promised land and did not perish in that desert. The people were elected by God, but few showed themselves to be the offspring of Abraham. In the beginning, only the people who had the heritage of being Israelites had access. Even though Israel was elected by God, many of them were not truly God’s people. Then God made a promise to open the doors of access to the whole world to belong in relationship to him. But our election calls for us to continue in faith toward the one who called us. This is what the apostles Paul and Peter taught elsewhere:
And you, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him, if indeed you continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel that you heard, which has been proclaimed in all creation under heaven, and of which I, Paul, became a minister. (Colossians 1:21–23 ESV)
Therefore, my brothers and sisters, make every effort to confirm your calling and election. For if you do these things, you will never stumble, and you will receive a rich welcome into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. (2 Peter 1:10–11 NIV)
Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Or do you not realize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you?—unless indeed you fail to meet the test! (2 Corinthians 13:5 ESV)
We have been called/elected/chosen to be holy and blameless before him. This happens by continuing firmly in the faith and not shifting away from the gospel which called us. So let me summarize what I believe Paul is describing for us as we put all of these pieces together. God decided that he was going to have a people that were distinct from the world. He made that decision before the creation of the world. There was nothing we could do to initiate that calling. God decided before you were created to have a people who belonged to him. The purpose of these people was that they would be presented before him holy and blameless. We cannot boast in this because God decided to have a people in spite of ourselves. Our actions simply are an affront to God, not a cause for him to save us. Continuing in the faith and living differently from the actions of the world shows that we have been chosen by God.
This is what made Israel the true Israel. Only when Israel acted according to God’s will and separated themselves from the world were they recognized as the people of God. When Israel did not, as Romans 2:25 declares, they became just like the world and lost their privileges. We have the privilege of being blessed with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places. We have been called to a glorious relationship in Christ and have been given everything we need for spiritual life and reconciliation. You have been chosen by God to be holy and walk with him blameless. What will you do with your calling? Do you know who you are? Do you act like you have been chosen? What a glorious picture to know that God has elected a people to be his own. No person deserved this wonderful treatment by the Father. Will your heart respond to God’s call to walk with him?