Who are the elect in the New Testament?
The word elect generates a lot of discussion and debate in the Christian church. Both Jesus and the apostles use the term in their teachings. So, who are the elect in the New Testament? The term “chosen” is used even more in the Bible. Are the elect and the chosen the same?
According to most dictionary definitions, the elect are people who are chosen or singled out. We elect officials to fulfill certain specific roles in the government. The president elect is the person the people choose to be president.
So, practically, the elect are also the “chosen” and as verbs, elect and choose can be interchangeable. It comes as no surprise that New Testament authors use elect and chosen in similar contexts.
So, what do these terms mean in the Bible? The elect must be chosen for something, but for what? Before we answer, let’s look at how the word chosen is used in Scripture, since it occurs more often, and the two words are closely connected.
Many readers assume chosen in the Bible always refers to one type of choice—that of salvation. And many Bible commentaries and even secular dictionaries define elect as “the people chosen by God for salvation.” This has been the assumed definition by those holding to a Reformed (Calvinist) theology since the Protestant Reformation. But this is not well supported in Scripture as we will see.
Actually, God has made many different choices and selections throughout history. In many contexts, God’s choices are in fact very different, depending on his purposes, plans and goals at a given time. Here are some examples:
God chose Moses to lead Israel:
So he said he would destroy them— had not Moses, his chosen one, stood in the breach …. (Psalm 106:23)
He chose the Levites to minister in the temple:
… the Lord your God has chosen them and their descendants out of all your tribes to stand and minister in the Lord’s name always. (Deuteronomy 18:5)
God chose certain kings to rule Israel:
“…. I have chosen David to rule my people Israel.” (1 Kings 8:16)
“Of all my sons—and the Lord has given me many—he has chosen my son Solomon to sit on the throne of the kingdom of the Lord over Israel.” (1 Chronicles 28:5)
He chose Jerusalem to be the worship center for Israel:
But now I have chosen Jerusalem for my Name to be there, and I have chosen David to rule my people Israel.’ (2 Chronicles 6:6)
And he chose prophets to speak his word to the people, as he chose Jeremiah:
Before I formed you in the womb I knew[ you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations. (Jeremiah 1:5)
God also chose the Persian king Cyrus to allow the Jewish people to return to their homeland and rebuild Jerusalem and the temple (Isaiah 44:28). In all these examples God chose a person, group of people, or place to fill a role in carrying out a plan. They all refer to an “election” since God singled out someone or something for a specific purpose. And it doesn’t necessarily mean all of the chosen people were saved. Though many of them were, some were not, as in the case of Cyrus. God chose them to perform a task or function in his plan or take on a vocation to ensure the fulfillment of his promises.
When the Old Testament uses election, people, places, and things are chosen to serve a purpose. In other words, election is vocational. (Shawn Lazar, Chosen to Serve: Why Divine Election Is to Service, Not to Eternal Life)
And because God made different kinds of choices throughout human history, there are different kinds of election in the Bible.
God chose Jesus Christ as his Messiah
Isaiah prophesized that God would choose a Messiah from among all the kings of Israel:
“Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen one in whom I delight; I will put my Spirit on him, and he will bring justice to the nations. (Isaiah 42:1)
To fulfill this promise, God chose Jesus of Nazareth as his servant and Messiah: to rule over the nations, to restore Israel, to draw the Gentiles to faith (Isaiah 49:6), and to die as a sacrifice for the sins of the world (Isaiah 53). And he chose Mary to bring this Savior into the world. At Jesus’ baptism, the Father affirmed he was the chosen Messiah, also confirmed by the apostles’ witness:
A voice came from the cloud, saying, “This is my Son, whom I have chosen; listen to him.” (Luke 9:35)
He was chosen before the creation of the world, but was revealed in these last times for your sake. (1 Peter 1:20)
Jesus chose his disciples
In the course of his ministry, Jesus also chose certain individuals to be his closest disciples, and later his apostles.
Then Jesus replied, “Have I not chosen you, the Twelve? Yet one of you is a devil!” (John 6:70)
“You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit—fruit that will last—and so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you.” (John 15:16)
Why did Jesus choose the twelve disciples? They were his chosen team to announce the Messiah’s reign in the first century and bear spiritual fruit. We know it wasn’t specifically for their own salvation since Judas was one of the original twelve and clearly, he was not saved. The Lord’s stated purpose was to perform a job—to proclaim the good news so that others could have salvation. Of course, Judas failed at his job, so the disciples replaced him (Acts 1:15-26).
The Lord also chose Paul to be apostle to the Gentiles:
But the Lord said to Ananias, “Go! This man is my chosen instrument to proclaim my name to the Gentiles and their kings and to the people of Israel.” (Acts 9:15)
The best illustration I can give of this type of election is that of a sports team. A team is assembled for a specific purpose, that of winning games. The coach chooses his players based on the tryouts, and the training, skills, and performance of each person. The resulting group is the “chosen team” if you will. And the coach has the authority to assign their positions and put whatever players he wants in the game at any given time. Only the coach can make these decisions.
Israel: God’s chosen nation
The main usage of elect in the New Testament originates from the Old Testament story of the deliverance of the Israelites.
By his grace, God rescued and chose the Jews to be his people. They were his servants who would be a kingdom of priests (Exodus 19:7), representing him in the world by reflecting his glory:
For you are a people holy to the Lord your God. 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. The Lord did not set his affection on you and choose you because you were more numerous than other peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples. (Deuteronomy 7:6-7)
For the Lord has chosen Jacob to be his own, Israel to be his treasured possession. (Psalm 135:4)
Notice that “chosen” in these passages refers to the nation and not to any individual in the nation. As is clear from the story in Exodus, many at that time were not faithful to God. They rejected him by worshipping the golden calf and so God rejected them. But the nation as a whole was still chosen, though not all individuals in the nation were truly God’s people.
The apostle Paul understood this well. Referring to the Jews, he wrote:
As far as the gospel is concerned, they are enemies for your sake; but as far as election is concerned, they are loved on account of the patriarchs…. (Romans 11:28)
Therefore I endure everything for the sake of the elect, that they too may obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus, with eternal glory. (2 Timothy 2:10)
Even though Paul was persecuted by the Jewish leaders and many Jews rejected God, he still referred to them as God’s elect. He endured everything, including persecution from his own countrymen the Jews, so they too could hear, believe, and be saved. So generally speaking, elect does not mean saved, but chosen by God for a purpose.
Applying the Old Testament concept to the New Testament Church
The New Testament authors used the Old Testament concept of “God’s chosen people” to describe the Church. This is most clearly portrayed in Peter’s letters:
But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light (1 Peter 2:9).
Here Peter uses the Old Testament language to refer to all New Testament believers collectively. Just as Israel was God’s chosen nation, the Church is now God’s chosen “nation,” his own people. It represents God in this world and is his special possession.
To God’s elect….who have been chosen according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, through the sanctifying work of the Spirit, to be obedient to Jesus Christ and sprinkled with his blood… (1 Peter 1:1-2)
So, for Peter the elect refers to the Church, not any individual in the Church. This last passage also demonstrates that God’s choice is based on his foreknowledge of those who would believe and be sanctified. The elect are not individually predetermined from before creation.
Paul’s use of chosen
The apostle Paul uses the terms chosen and elect in the same way as Peter throughout his letters:
Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. (Romans 8:33)
Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. (Col 3:12)
For we know, brothers and sisters loved by God, that he has chosen you… (1 Thessalonians 1:4)
But we ought always to thank God for you, brothers and sisters loved by the Lord, because God chose you as firstfruits to be saved through the sanctifying work of the Spirit and through belief in the truth. (2 Thessalonians 2:13)
Paul, a servant of God and an apostle of Jesus Christ to further the faith of God’s elect and their knowledge of the truth that leads to godliness… (Titus 1:1)
In these passages, God’s chosen refers collectively to the body of believers, the people of God. Again, he never refers to God choosing or selecting an individual for salvation or electing someone unto faith. The 2 Thessalonians 2:13 passage strongly suggests God chose the Thessalonian believers because of their faith, not independently of it.
The chosen in Ephesians
Paul’s use of chosen in Ephesians is more difficult to interpret. But we can assume he uses the word in the same way as his other letters:
Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ. For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. (Ephesians 1:3-4)
In him we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will in order that we, who were the first to put our hope in Christ, might be for the praise of his glory. (Ephesians 1:11-12)
Paul is saying that all the blessings believers have are given to them in Christ. Just as God chose Christ from before the creation of the world to be the Savior, those who are in Christ by faith are chosen in him and saved in him. So, believers are chosen because they are in Christ, not chosen to be in Christ. They are the people of God and the elect of God because they are in Christ who is the chosen (or elect) Messiah.
In these passages, the term chosen doesn’t describe the process of how individuals come to faith. Elsewhere, Paul makes it clear that we become God’s children through our trust in Christ and his saving work. God saved us individually when we believed the gospel message (Ephesians 1:13, 2:8-9), not by his independent decision before time began.
Our society and culture focus so much on people as individuals that we have an aversion to being referred to as belonging to any group. And the modern Bible reader has a tendency to lose sight of the bigger picture and apply every passage to themselves individually. That is the lens through which they read Scripture—to help them personally. So, it’s difficult for us today to read the Bible in any other way.
But none of the New Testament passages we’ve read describe election as God choosing individuals for salvation. Rather, it means God choosing a people to serve him and fulfill the purposes in his great plan. Nowhere does Scripture say that God “elects” any individual to salvation. This is a popular but very superficial understanding of the biblical texts. God may choose an individual to serve him in some capacity but does not individually elect anyone to believe in him. We are not chosen to believe in Christ but chosen in Christ.
So, God elected a people to proclaim his praises. Although the Church is made of individuals, the term elect doesn’t refer to the individuals in the Church, it refers to the Church corporately as a whole. Theologians call this “corporate election.” An individual becomes a member of God’s elect when they willingly and freely respond to God’s call.
The word predestine is associated with election but has a different meaning. Those who are in Christ are predestined to become like Christ and share in his glory (explained in more detail in my article Predestination in the Bible).
Who are the elect in the New Testament?
So, who are the elect in the New Testament? They are the Church—the group of people God has selected for the purpose of representing him on earth. It describes their role in God’s kingdom: to provide a witness to the world to those who live in darkness. Previously, Israel was God’s chosen nation to represent him on earth and spread abroad the knowledge of him. In the same way, the Church collectively is now God’s chosen team for representing him today. We are to “declare his praises.” And God has the right to give gifts and abilities to whomever he wants, and to promote anyone to a position that serves him best. He will remove or even punish those who fail in their duties and calling, but reward those who are obedient.
And when their job is complete, God will gather them and call them to their eternal home:
And he will send his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of the heavens to the other. (Matthew 24:31)
I hope this answers your questions about election. But you may still have more questions, especially about verses that appear to say something different than what is presented in this article. The following resources provide more detailed exegeses of the relevant Bible passages and may help you sort this topic out. We may not agree on how to interpret every verse but with God’s help and careful study, we will arrive at a better understanding.
- Leighton Flowers, The Potter’s Promise, A Biblical Defense of Traditional Soteriology, Trinity Academic Press, 2017
- Shawn Lazar, Chosen to Serve, Why Divine Election is to Service, Not to Eternal Life, Kindle version, 2017
- Wayne O’Donell, Predestination is to Glory, Not to Faith, Kindle version, 2020
- Jordan Hatfield, My Main Issue with Calvinism, YouTube video
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