Election:to Eternal Life or to service?
To “elect” something, simply means to “choose” it, and there isn’t a single verse in the Bible that says God elects individuals for eternal life or for eternal death. When you look up the passages dealing with God’s elections or choices, you find they are to service and privilege, not to eternal life. In sum, Biblical election is vocational: God chooses people, places, and things to serve Him in a task or mission.
The Old Testament Evidence
There are dozens of examples of election in the OT. All of them involve down-to-earth choices, not eternal destiny. For example, wives are said to be chosen by their husbands (Gen 6:2). Pieces of land and city plots are chosen to live in (Gen 13:11; Deut 23:16). And bulls are carefully chosen to be sacrificed (1 Kgs 18:23). There are also numerous examples of God choosing places to serve Him, such as Jerusalem (1 Kgs 8:44) and the Temple (2 Chron 7:16). Clearly, none of those elections were to eternal life. People, places, and things are chosen because they are best suited for the task at hand.
Being “elect” or “chosen” can also have a qualitative meaning in the OT. In English, we speak about “choice” seats at a concert, or “select” cuts of meat. In the same way, the OT often describes certain soldiers as being “select men” who are ideally suited for a mission. For example: “Among all these people were seven hundred select men who were left-handed; every one could sling a stone at a hair’s breadth and not miss” (Jgs 20:16, emphasis added; cf. Exod 14:7; 1 Sam 24:3; 2 Chron 13:3).
The Individual/Corporate Pattern
There are numerous OT examples of God choosing individuals to serve Him, elections that were often implicitly corporate.
For example, God chose Abraham. His election was vocational because he was chosen to be the father of a people, the Jews (Gen 12:1-3). Through Abraham, the Jews were elect (Deut 7:6; Ps 33:12, etc.). Their election was also vocational because they were meant to be “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exod 19:6) and the progenitors of the Messiah. But individual Jews were not elect in and of themselves. Instead, they were elect because they belonged to Israel.
We find the same pattern in the case of Aaron. God chose Aaron as an individual. His election was vocational because he was chosen to be a High Priest (Num 17:5). Aaron’s individual election was also implicitly corporate because God chose his descendants to serve as a line of priests after him and chose Aaron’s tribe (Levi) to be helpers to the priests (Num 18:2-4). But individual membership in the priesthood was conditional. Disobedient priests like Nadab and Abihu could be cut off from their vocation via death (Lev 10:1-3).
Lastly, consider king David. God chose David. His election was vocational because he was chosen to be king (2 Sam 6:21; 1 Kgs 8:16). David’s election was also implicitly corporate. God chose his house (Judah) to be the royal line (2 Sam 7:12-16; 1 Chron 28:4). But whether or not any particular descendant became and remained king was entirely conditional. Of all of David’s sons, only Solomon was chosen to be king over the individual nation. And when he disobeyed God by being unfaithful in his vocation, God tore away most of the kingdom from his son Rehoboam (1 Kgs 11:9-13).
Abraham, Aaron, and David were all elected by God, but not to eternal life. They were chosen to serve. Whether or not they were regenerate was a separate issue.
The Apostles Were Chosen to Serve
The worldview of the Apostles was shaped by the OT. Their thought about election is no exception. Throughout the NT, we find that election is vocational. People are chosen for service and privilege, not for eternal life.
For example, Jesus chose twelve men to be His Apostles (Luke 6:13). The fact that this was not an election to eternal life is clear from the fact that Judas was one of the twelve and he was not regenerate (John 13:10). In all probability, the eleven Apostles were already regenerate before they were chosen to be one of the twelve, as was certainly the case with Matthias.
The Apostles had a vocational election. They were chosen to preach (Mark 3:13-14). We also know that their election was conditional. After Judas failed in his apostolic vocation, he was replaced by Matthias (Acts 1:24).
Jesus declared that Paul was “a chosen vessel of Mine” to preach to the Gentiles (Acts 9:15-16). Silas, in turn, was chosen by Paul to be his travelling partner (Acts 15:40).
Peter was also chosen for a mission: “God chose among us, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe” (Acts 15:7-8).
The Apostles were all chosen to serve, not to have eternal life.
Jesus Is the Chosen One
The OT proclaimed that the Messiah was chosen by God to be a Suffering Servant (Isa 49:7), to preserve
a remnant in Israel (Isa 49:6), to be a light to the Gentiles (Isa 49:6), and to suffer for man’s salvation (Isa 52:13–53:12). The Messiah was chosen for a mission.
The NT reveals that Jesus is the Messiah, the Chosen One. He was not chosen to receive eternal salvation, but to give it to others. Even Jesus’ enemies knew the Messiah was chosen to save others (Luke 23:35). In sum, He was chosen to be a Servant (Matt 12:18).
When God elected Jesus, He had a corporate people in mind. Just as God chose the Jews in Abraham, the priests in Aaron, and the kings in David, God chose the Church to be in Christ.
In Ephesians 1 and 2, Paul revealed all the blessings that believers have when they are united to Christ in faith. One of those blessings is that we become elect in Him (Eph 1:4). This means that we share in Christ’s own election, not that we are individually elect ourselves. As William Klein explained, “Christ is the principally elected one and God has chosen a corporate body to be included in him” (The New Chosen People, 182).
And what were we chosen in Christ to do? Paul told the Ephesians that we were “created in Christ Jesus for good works” (Eph 2:10). Our election is vocational. We are called to love our neighbors and do good to them.
“Appointed” to Eternal Life? (Acts 13:48)
In Acts 13:48, we read: “Now when the Gentiles heard this, they were glad and glorified the word of the Lord. And as many as had been appointed to eternal life believed.” The word often translated as “appointed” or “ordained” is tetagmenoi. Most translations thereby imply that these Gentiles were divinely appointed to believe the gospel. But the context strongly suggests a better interpretation.
Acts 13 is a study in contrasts in how different people prepare themselves to hear the gospel. At the beginning of the chapter, Luke contrasted the different attitudes of a false prophet named Bar-Jesus and a proconsul named Sergius Paulus. Luke tells us that Bar-Jesus was “full of all deceit and all fraud” and “an enemy of all righteousness” who kept “perverting the straight ways of the Lord” (Acts 13:10), while the proconsul was “an intelligent man” who “sought to hear the word of God” (Acts 13:7). Clearly, one man was open to the truth, and the other was not. Consequently, Bar-Jesus was cursed with blindness while the proconsul believed the gospel (Acts 13:12).
Later, when Paul and his party travelled down to Pisidian Antioch, they encountered another study in contrasts. Some of the Jews there “opposed the things spoken by Paul,” and didn’t believe his message. Paul rebuked them, saying you “judge yourselves unworthy of everlasting life” (Acts 13:46).
By contrast, there were others who “begged” to hear more of the gospel. Unlike the Jews who judged themselves unworthy, these other people were open to the truth and actively seeking eternal life.
The positive response of the Gentiles seems to be antithetically parallel with the self-condemnation of the unbelieving Jews. That’s why commentators like Henry Alford and J. Vernon Bartlet argued that tetagmenoi should be translated: “as many as were disposed to eternal life believed.”1 It is not that a divine power appointed them to eternal life. It is that, unlike the unbelieving Jews, these people had prepared themselves for eternal life, by seeking out the truth about the gospel.
The Thessalonians and the Day of the Lord
People sometimes mistakenly read 2 Thess 2:3-4 as a reference to individual election to eternal life. Paul told them, “God from the beginning chose you for salvation through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth.” But once again, context is key.
The Thessalonians were deeply concerned about the end times. In 2 Thessalonians, the believers feared they had entered into the Tribulation period, the Day of the Lord. But Paul assured them that they hadn’t. He explained that, if they were in the Tribulation, certain events would already have happened, such as the son of perdition exalting himself above God and sitting in the Temple (2 Thess 2:3-4). That hadn’t happened yet.
And besides, Paul wrote, “from the beginning” the Thessalonians were “chosen for salvation.” What salvation is he talking about? The subject wasn’t eternal salvation. Rather, Paul was talking about deliverance from the terrible events being discussed (2 Thess 2:1-12). The Thessalonians were chosen to be delivered from the Tribulation via the Rapture the moment they first believed the gospel (2 Thess 2:13-14).
The Potter and the Clay
Romans 9 is a perennial favorite among those who believe in individual election to eternal life and death. But all of Paul’s examples in that chapter show that God has the prerogative in choosing which nations to serve His purposes. The chapter is about corporate election to service, not individual election to eternal life.
In Romans 9, Paul explained how it could be that the Gentiles seemed to have been blessed above the Jews. He appealed to OT examples which showed that God was free to choose whichever nations He desired to serve Him.
For example, Paul said, God chose Jacob over Esau. But according to Gen 25:23 and Mal 1:1-5, Jacob and Esau represented two nations. The point was that God was free to choose the Jews over the Edomites to serve as the progenitors of the Messiah. This was a vocational choice of one nation over another, not an individual choice about their eternal destinies.
Paul also used Pharaoh to show that God could use Egypt to fulfill His purposes for Israel. In that case, God used Pharaoh to bring the Jews into the Promised Land. Whether or not Pharaoh was individually regenerate was not at issue.
This corporate and vocational emphasis was also evident in Paul’s use of the image of the potter and the clay. Jeremiah used that illustration to argue that God could justly punish those nations who failed in their vocations and reward those who fulfilled them (Jer 18:1-13). And Isaiah used the same image to show that God was just in using a Gentile like Cyrus to help rebuild Jerusalem (Isaiah 45). Both uses are vocational in nature. And that is Paul’s point too.
In sum, Romans 9 is not about individual predestination to eternal life. It is about God’s prerogative in using nations—even Gentile nations—to serve His purposes, sometimes at Israel’s expense, but more often to her benefit.
A Chosen Remnant
In Rom 11:5, Paul assured his readers that just as there was a remnant in Elijah’s day, so too in their day there was a “remnant chosen by grace.”
Many interpret that to mean there was a remnant of individuals predestined to have eternal life. However, that interpretation doesn’t fit the context.
In Elijah’s day, God reserved for Himself “seven thousand men who have not bowed the knee to Baal” (Rom 11:1-4). These men were reserved for a reason: they refused to bow to idols. Likewise, in Paul’s day, God had reserved for Himself “a remnant chosen by grace.” And why were they chosen?
As Paul explained, unlike the rest of Israel, which sought for righteousness by works of the law, the remnant had sought and received righteousness by faith (Rom 9:3032). And as Paul says elsewhere, “it is of faith that it might be according to grace” (Rom 4:6). To say the remnant were “chosen by grace” is Paul’s
way of saying they were chosen because they had been justified by faith, apart from works.
As members of the Body of Christ, we are elect in Christ, and share in the general vocation to do good works (Eph 2:10). Hence, this vocational doctrine of election makes a difference to several areas of Christian thought and practice.
First, it does not cast doubt on God’s loving character the way other theories of election do. God’s election is an expression of His love for all. For example, the Jews were chosen to produce the Messiah so that all people could be saved. And the Apostles were chosen to proclaim the gospel so that many would believe in Jesus and have eternal life. Election to service actually magnifies God’s love for all mankind.
Second, election to service does not destroy people’s assurance of eternal life. It brings out the fact that election and eternal life are two different issues. Eternal life is given to us freely on the basis of faith in Christ (John 3:16). But being faithful in the service to which we are all chosen takes prayer, effort, faithfulness, diligence, and work.
Third, election to service clarifies the importance of both God’s sovereignty and human free-will. From the divine side of things, God sovereignly sends His Son to atone for the sins of the world, chooses servants to preach the good news to all mankind, and chooses to save whoever will believe in Jesus for eternal life. And from the human side of things, people are free to seek the truth in response to God’s drawing, to believe in Jesus’ promise of eternal life, and to be faithful or unfaithful in the mission God has sovereignly given them as members of the Church (Eph 2:10). God sovereignly allows for human freedom in both eternal life and in our election to service.
There is much more work to be done on the doctrine of election. We have only reviewed some of the evidence here. But Free Grace Baptists and others are reading the Bible with genuine excitement. They see that Biblical election is not a “dread decree” that only philosophers can understand, but a practical and down-to-earth choice that meaningfully underscores the importance of faithfulness in the Christian life. After receiving the free gift of everlasting life, we are called to serve God and our neighbors. Will you be faithful in your mission?