When people begin to talk theology across the dinner table, one of the subjects that comes up most quickly is election. Wars have been fought—figuratively speaking, of course—over this doctrine. Friends become bitter enemies. Arguments can ripple through an entire church over it. And once you find out that someone you trust differs from your opinion on election, it seems that every other part of their theology becomes subject to suspicion. Does this need to be the case?
We can’t escape the concept of election, or at least the word. It comes up all over the Bible:
Even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will… (Ephesians 1:4-5)
And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified. (Romans 8:28-30)
...Who saved us and called us to a holy calling, not because of our works but because of his own purpose and grace, which he gave us in Christ Jesus before the ages began… (2 Timothy 1:9)
And when the Gentiles heard this, they began rejoicing and glorifying the word of the Lord, and as many as were appointed to eternal life believed. (Acts 13:48)
And most famously, of course, Romans 9:
Though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad—in order that God's purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of him who calls—she was told, “The older will serve the younger.” As it is written, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.” (Romans 9:11-13)
These can be difficult passages, particularly for those among us who can’t get over the hurdle of imagining a God who chooses some but not others. But I’d like to offer a different way of thinking about election. And to start, we have to ask the question, “What is election for?” Or, in other words, “Why are the elect elected?”
Most of the time people have this discussion, the understanding is that people are elected to be “saved”—to be partakers in the atonement and eternal life won by Jesus Christ on the cross. The elect are chosen to receive this gift for their benefit, because God has graciously chosen them, while others are not chosen to receive the gift.
Simply put, the general understanding is that it is a privilege to be elect.
But is that really what the Bible teaches about election? I’m not so sure. Let’s take a look at where election really begins: Genesis 12. God calls Abram to leave his home and his family, and he makes this promise:
“Go from your country and your kindred and your father's house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Genesis 12:1b-3)
Abram is chosen by God to become great. He will have a great name and innumerable descendants. God will never forget about him, and will make sure that he and his descendants fare well in all their endeavors. Sounds like a pretty sweet gig, right?
But wait. Did you catch why God will do these things for Abram? So that Abram will be a blessing to others. And the end goal is that all the families of the earth will be blessed through him.
We find this sentiment echoed throughout Scripture. Exodus 19:5-6, God says to the Israelites, “Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”
A kingdom of priests. We usually brush right past that without realizing what it means. Priests are mediators between God and his people. They represent the people to God and vice versa, so that the people’s relationship to the Lord may be healthy and strong. Priests exist for the sake of the people.
Even Paul, everyone’s favorite theologian on election, echoes this when he indicts the Israelites for their sin in Romans 2. He bashes the Jews for relying on the law and their special relationship with God, and eventually blames the Jews for the sin of the Gentiles: “The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you” (v. 24).
The Jews loved to think of themselves as better than the Gentiles, but they had completely forgotten their role as priests to the nations. They forgot that the purpose of the covenant God made with Abraham was so that “all the families of the earth will be blessed.” They forgot that they were elected for the sake of others.
That’s what election is all about, and it should seep into how we as Christians think about our own election to salvation. Regardless of your stance on the sovereignty-free will debate, you can’t escape the language of election. We have been “chosen before the foundation of the earth”—but not so we can lord it over everybody else who wasn’t.
God has graciously chosen us to be his instruments of forgiveness, reconciliation, and kingdom building in the world. We have been chosen by God to bless the nations, to bring them into the saving embrace of Jesus Christ, and to make them disciples. We are elected for the sake of others.
So let’s not be the self-righteous Jews that Paul is talking to in Romans 2. Don’t be like the tax collector who prays loudly in the city square, “God, thank you that I’m not like the tax collector!” Because Jesus came for tax collectors. He came for Gentiles and Samaritans, atheists and Muslims, politicians and immigrants. And he has given us the responsibility of being the hands and feet through which he brings them to himself.