What is the proper understanding of the term, “the elect”? There are some who would argue that “the elect” refers to a predetermined group of people that HaShem has chosen from before the creation of the world to be redeemed and thereby be in the Kingdom. Does this mean that those who are not elected by G-d are condemned and will experience eternal damnation? Is there any aspect of free will or has it all been predetermined by G-d and it is simply played out over time?
This doctrine of election has divided believers for centuries and I doubt that anyone today can add something to the debate that has not already been said many times before by many different individuals. So why write on this subject? Over the last decade there is a resurgence of Reformed theology within the evangelical movement. This has very significant implications in regard to one’s view concerning Israel and the Jewish people in general. These implications are not just theological, but carry over into shaping political stances as well.
This article will examine the Biblical word “to elect” and many of the Scriptural verses where this word appears, in order to gain a proper Biblical understanding of the word, apart from all theological biases. Then the article will move toward an exegetically based presentation of the doctrine of election. The article will conclude with a look at how an improper understanding of election distorts one’s views of Israel.
The term “to elect”
When examining the term “to elect” in the Bible, the word which forms the basis for this concept, is simply “to choose”. Hence, G-d chooses individuals to be part of His Kingdom. These individuals are known as “the elect”. In the Epistle to the Ephesians, Paul reveals that the elect were chosen in the Messiah before the foundations of the world (See Eph. 1:4). Obviously, HaShem knew in eternity past who would be in the Kingdom and who would be eternally separated from Him. However, the verse in question here does not state this point; that is, it is exegetically incorrect to use this verse to prove that G-d has chosen certain individuals for His Kingdom and others for eternal condemnation. What Ephesians 1:4 states is that before the foundations of the earth were laid; G-d chose those who are in Messiah, to be holy and blameless before Him in love. Therefore, although HaShem forever knew who would be saved and those who would not, Ephesians 1:4 does not make this statement. Rather this verse points out what all believers will become in Messiah.
It is very important for the reader to pay close attention to the context of this section. In the previous verse Paul is speaking about all spiritual blessings in heavenly places in Messiah. After informing that G-d has chosen those who are in Messiah to be holy and blameless, it is most significant that in the next verse, Paul begins teaching about predestination. Once again it is vital to understand what is being said and what is not being said. In Ephesians 1:5 Paul writes that G-d has predestinated believers unto the adoption of sons. Many translations use a neuter designation, i.e. adoption of children. It is very important to note that the Greek word for adoption is actually formed from the word “son”. The masculine is used to connote the idea of an heir. That is to say that G-d has predetermined that believers will be considered as heirs with Messiah Yeshua. In no way should one derive from this verse or the term “predestination” that G-d has predetermined who would be heirs. Obviously HaShem from eternity past knew who would be heirs, but the idea of Him predetermining the “who”, is not the intent of this verse.
Still further in this same chapter Paul writes that those in Messiah have an inheritance and then reveals what this inheritance is— being predestinated to become the praise of His glory that first trusted in Messiah (See Ephesians 1:10-12). Once again the idea is not who has been predetermined, but what has been predetermined, namely that believers who have trusted in the Gospel will one day become a praise to G-d. Hence predestination is not who will be saved, but that G-d has predetermined what believers will become. This idea is also expressed in Romans 8:28-30.
In this famous passage Paul begins with a promise. He writes,
“But we know that for the ones who love G-d, all works together for good, for the ones according to purpose (predetermination) are called.” Romans 8:28
I translated the Greek in the most literal way possible so as to not place upon the verse any interpretation. Having translated it, now let us begin to understand what is actually said. The verse opens by stating that the verse is not speaking to all people in a general manner, but only to those who love HaShem. Only those who love HaShem can expect that all which takes place in their life will actually work together for good. It is the next section that at first glance appears somewhat confusing. In this section Paul speaks about those who are “called”. Special attention will be given to this term later on in this article. But let it suffice to say that the “called” are those who G-d has invited into His Kingdom by means of the Gospel. Loving G-d is further defined in this verse by those who respond according to which Paul simply calls “predetermination”. Most translations render the word “πρόθεσιν” as “His purpose”. The word “his” is not in the text, but the idea here is the plan or purpose that G-d has established from eternity past. In other words, the believer in Messiah who demonstrates a love for G-d and who is submitting to the will of G-d, can expect that whatever happens to him, G-d will eventually use that for good.
In the next verse there is a word that has great significance, but often is ignored by many theologians. The word is “foreknow” “προέγνω” and this Greek word, like in English, is derived from two words: “before” and “to know”. Why does Paul include this idea within this discussion? The word is used in regard to those whom G-d also predestinated. Romans 8:29 makes it absolutely clear what G-d predetermined or predestinated is that believers in Messiah will be conformed to the image of the Son, Messiah Yeshua. The Biblical word “predestinated” is “προοράω”, which literally means “to see before”. Hence, the intent of predestination is simply that G-d saw beforehand that believers would be conformed to the image of Yeshua. Some have correctly pointed out that a more exact Greek term for predestination is the word “προορίζω”. This word means simply “to set limits or boundaries beforehand”. Therefore a fuller meaning for the term predestination is not only did G-d see in the past what believers would be, i.e. like Messiah, He also predetermined the likeness as well. Once again there is nothing yet from the text that HaShem predetermined who will be the ones to be conformed to the likeness of Messiah, just that all believers have been predestinated to experience this.
Reformed theologians commonly state what the word “foreknow” does not mean, but seldom comment on its use in the verse. Reformed theologians strongly deny that the term “foreknowledge” has to do with knowing the future, but rather has to do with G-d choosing individuals from before the foundations of the world were laid to be in relationship with Him. Hence, Reformed theologians state that G-d’s foreknowledge has nothing to do with Him looking at the future and seeing who will accept the Gospel and who will not. If this were the case, then foreknowledge would be based on the decision of man to accept the Gospel. This would mean that man has the ability to cooperate with G-d’s grace. Reformed theologians understand the grace of G-d as being placed upon man in an irresistible manner. Furthermore, although “foreknowledge” is not HaShem knowing the future, obviously G-d knows the future and Reformed theologians agree. The problem with Reformed theology is that it sees G-d knowing the future as the same as Him determining it. This point one must reject. There is no logical basis for stating that because G-d knows the future perfectly that He has caused everything in the future to happen. There is a significant difference between God’s knowing what will occur and God’s ordaining that same thing to occur.
In returning to the term “foreknowledge”, let us accept the definition of our Reformed friends and state that the concept of “foreknowledge” is that G-d knew who would be in His Kingdom apart from any action that a man would take. Now Romans 8:29 would teach that those whom G-d knew would be part of His redeemed family, He also predetermined that they would be conformed to the image of the Son. In the next verse the reader learns that not only has G-d predetermined what believers will be (like Yeshua), but also HaShem called them. The word “to call” and its related forms appear in the Greek New Testament 148 times. The basic meanings are “to name something or someone” or “to seek one’s attention” or “to invite one to respond to a command or request”.
Because Reformed theologians believe that election is not based upon anything man does or will do, they prefer to understand the term “called” within the context of being given a name. Since the idea of “name” is synonymous with character or identity, Reformed theologians understand the verse to reveal that G-d, after predetermining who are the “elect”, He calls them, i.e. He gives them a new identity as His people and therefore identifies them with Himself. Due to this He also does the rest of what this verse reveals, He justifies them and ultimately glorifies them, i.e. makes them into the likeness of His Son.
Although this view is advantageous, because it regards the whole issue of salvation as an act of G-d alone, and thereby He alone is worthy of Praise; there are a few flaws associated with it. The first is the understanding of the term predestination. Reformed theologians ascribe to it a meaning which cannot be derived from the Scripture. For them, predestination is to predetermine who will be saved by G-d, rather than the Scriptural definition, what G-d has predetermined believers will become, i.e. like Yeshua. Second under the framework which Reformed theologians set up, all the “called” must be saved. It is clear that Romans 8:30 is speaking about a situation that will indeed occur for those who are the subject of this verse, i.e. believers in Messiah. It is vital for the reader to remember that the subject of the verse is established by the phrase “οὓς δὲ προώρισεν” “And those He predestinated”. Whom did HaShem predestinate to be conformed to the likeness of Messiah? The answer is believers in the Gospel. Our reformed friends will agree and say it is only the elect who will believe. This is true, but is only the elect called?
At this time it is necessary to deal with the common meaning of “Predestination”. The understanding of this term by most individuals (not necessarily theologians) is that G-d has chosen who will be saved. The question that follows is does this mean that He has also predetermined who will likewise be condemned? Most Reformed theologians distance themselves from the idea that G-d predetermines who will be eternally condemned. They state that G-d is just and therefore although He moves to save the elect; one should not understand that He similarly moves to bring condemnation on those who are not the elect. In other words, G-d simply leaves the non-elect alone and in the end His justice is placed upon them, which rightly condemns them. Hence all people receive the justice of G-d, the elect as recipients of G-d’s grace and eternal life in His Kingdom and the others His justice which rightly punishes them for eternity.
The problem is that under this view, there are those who cannot refuse G-d’s grace and there are those who cannot receive G-d’s grace. The Doctrine of Irresistible Grace will be studied in greater detail in a later article, but let it suffice for now to point out that a view of election which states that the spiritual condition of all of mankind is predetermine by G-d apart from any human ability to respond to G-d is without foundation. This would mean that who G-d calls must eventually respond in an affirmative manner and that G-d never calls everyone but the elect. Hence those who are not the elect never had any possibility of responding to G-d’s call. Such a theological perspective is without foundation.
Before examining a few texts that address this issue, let us be sure of the issue itself. All of humanity is sinful and deserving of eternal punishment. Therefore if G-d were to do nothing and all mankind was condemned, His righteousness is intact. Likewise G-d is under no obligation to call all of humanity to salvation by means of the Gospel. That is, He can have John hear the Gospel and be saved by faith, while Mary does not hear and is eternally condemned; still the righteousness of G-d is maintained, since He is under no obligation to offer the Gospel to Mary.
A problem arises when HaShem becomes angry with those who were offered the Gospel and did not respond. If there is no human factor and faith is an absolute act of G-d compelled upon the elect, it would be unrighteous for G-d to be angry with faithlessness of an individual because that individual would have no ability to respond with faith. In other words, if G-d withholds faith from some, why does He find fault with the faithless, seeing that He did not provide them with this faith?
In regard to my final statement, many will want to quote to me Romans 9:19. This verse will be addressed later in this article. However, before looking at this verse a proper context must be established for understanding what Paul actually intended when he wrote Romans 9:19. In order to do this let us first consider another passage, the Parable of the Wedding Banquet (Matthew 22:1-14). Yeshua told this parable in order to teach about the Kingdom, for He said, “The Kingdom of heaven is like….” In this parable Yeshua told of a certain king who made a great wedding banquet for his son. He sent out his servants to inform those who had been invited / called to come. Yet those who were called would not come, in fact some acted in a most offensive manner even killing some of the servants. It is very significant that the reader is told in this passage,
“…The wedding is prepared, but the ones who were called were not worthy.”
Finally, both the bad and good were brought to the wedding (See verse 10) showing that salvation is not based on works. The parable ends with the statement,
“For many are the called ones, but few are the elect.” Matthew 22:14
This verse makes it most evident that there are indeed those who are called / invited to be in the Kingdom, but who refuse and therefore are not the elect. This fact is at odds with most of Reformed theology which understands Romans 8:30 to imply that only the predestinated are called. Another passage that shows an element of human will in regard to responding to the purposes of Messiah is found in Matthew 23. In this section Yeshua is lamenting over Jerusalem and the fact that He wants to gather up the people like a mother hen gathers her chicks, but the text states emphatically, “…and you were not willing.” (See Matthew 23:37)
Once again it makes no sense for Yeshua to be lamenting over the residents of Jerusalem for failing to respond to Him, if in fact the only way they could do so was if He were to make them to do so. It is important to understand what is not being said here. If G-d does not provide the way for one to be saved, He is still righteous; as all are guilty of sin and worthy of eternal condemnation. However, for Yeshua to lament over Jerusalem’s failure to respond to what Reformed theology coins His “Irresistible Grace” when He has not caused them to receive it, it is illogical on Yeshua’s part. In other words, it is not problematic for a sinner to be condemned without any opportunity to find forgiveness except by means of general revelation (See Romans 1:19-21). However, for there to be any disappointment or anger on the part of G-d, when people fail to respond to His Gospel, when according to Reformed theology only the predetermined “elect” have been given the ability, which they are compelled to exercise to respond to G-d’s “call” to salvation, is not logical.
In this next section there will be special attention given to the theological term “called”. The primary text is from Romans chapter 9 and this section will conclude with a proper understanding of Romans 9:19. The ninth chapter of Romans is paramount in laying the foundation for many of the issues we have been discussing in regard to Reformed theology. In this passage, Paul begins a three chapter discussion of Israel’s spiritual condition. It is most important for a proper understanding of this section and the issues which are discussed, that there is recognition of this as the primary subject. Paul begins by stating his grief over Israel’s, i.e. Jewish individuals’ spiritual condition. It is also important for the reader to recognize that Paul uses the term “Israel” in two distinct manners. This is most evident in verse 6,
“But not implying that the word of G-d was ineffective, for not all the ones out of Israel are of Israel.” Romans 9:6
This verse first uses the term “Israel” as what we would call today as Jewish individuals, and the second occurrence relates “Israel” as those who are part of G-d’s Kingdom. Next there is another important term used, this is “seed of Abraham”. The purpose of this term is to introduce the concept of promise into the passage. The point here is that simply being a physical descendant of Abraham is not sufficient for one being part of “Israel” according to the second usage. In other words, it is faith in the promise of G-d, which Isaac represents and ultimately Messiah fulfills, that is necessary for a Jewish individual to be part of “Israel” in both usages. Paul, after speaking about the true seed of Abraham, Isaac and not Ishmael, the child according to the flesh, moves unto the next generation.
It is the account of Jacob and Esau that offers much information to the reader in assisting one to arrive at the proper understanding of this section. In Romans 9:11-12 two important terms are introduced: “election” and “call”. This account speaks of HaShem’s sovereign right to choose Jacob and not Esau to continue His covenantal promise. A common error that many Reformed theologians make, is to understand HaShem’s choice (election) of Jacob, as revealing who the beneficiaries of the promise will be. This is not the purpose represented here. The future beneficiaries are ultimately believers in the One Who fulfills the Abrahamic Covenant, i.e. the Messiah. Jacob was simply chosen by G-d to take over Isaac’s leadership position for the next generation.
Verse 11 states plainly that this choice of Jacob was not based upon something Jacob would do, i.e. works, but solely on G-d’s right to call. Most translations introduce the word “election” into the text. This is fine as long as one realizes the Greek word which is translated “election” is derived from two Greek words meaning literally “to speak out”. Who did this speaking out? The answer is obviously G-d, Who calls “καλοῦντος”(See verse12). It is highly significant that in this passage both the idea of “election” and “calling” are mentioned.
Reformed theology stresses that election is predetermining and is devoid of human free will. In other words, G-d mandates who are the elect and the elect have no option but to respond to the Gospel, as the expression of an “irresistible grace”, not offered to an individual, but forced upon him in a manner that it is impossible to reject. The purpose of the phase in verse 12 “Not from works, but according to the One Who calls” is to help define the conception of “election”.
By Dr Baruch Korman
(To Be continued)