This week's column is probably the most difficult I've ever had to research. Our question comes from Amy on the Internet who asks, "Who are God's elect; do they know who they are; and do they have free will?"
There are two primary sources to turn to when researching the subject of the elect. The first, of course, is scripture. The second source is John Calvin's Institutes of the Christian Religion (Albany: Sage Digital Library. 1996) who deals with the subject of the elect from beginning to end of his four-volume work.
Looking first to Calvin, he believes the elect are those people who God has chosen "before the founding of the world" (Ephesians 1.4) to enter into eternal life. These people, the elect, are inextricably drawn to the grace of God, while those who are not chosen by God are bound for eternal punishment (1035-36). Indeed, Calvin insists that the elect have no choice as to their heavenly disposition, and yet also asserts they have choice in the matter, "that though their will cannot decline from good, it does not therefore cease to be [their] will" (372). Calvin seems to suggest that the elect have a sense of assurance in their election; however, the damned are not so certain. In fact, those who are not elect may believe God has been gracious to them, when, in fact, God has destined them to eternal punishment (644).
And what of sharing the Word of God with those who are not the elect in hopes that they might become one elected? "The Word, when addressed to the reprobate, though not effectual for their amendment, has another use. It urges their consciences now, and will render them more inexcusable on the day of judgment" (377). In other words, the "good news" is "bad news" to those not elected by God.
What does scripture say about the subject? Those passages that speak of the "elect" seems indeed to support Calvin's assertions. For example, Romans 9 is devoted to explanation of the elect versus those not elected: "Even before they had been born or had done anything good or bad (so that God's purpose of election might continue, not by works but by his call) [Rebecca] was told, 'The elder shall serve the younger.' As it is written, 'I have loved Jacob, but I have hated Esau'" (Romans 9.11-13). It doesn't paint a very pretty picture of God.
On the other hand, if we examine the whole of scripture and its story of the elect, we get a different picture. In the beginning, God chose all people's to be "of God." But people turned away from God and only one person, Noah, was faithful. God elected Noah and his family from the whole of the earth to be the "saved" from the flood. Since the whole of the population after Noah was Noah's descendants, they were all "elect." However, these too turned from God and God found Abraham, a righteous man, and entered into a special covenant with him and he and his descendants became the elect. This covenant was continued through his grandson Jacob (later renamed Israel) and his descendants became the nation of Israel who were called God's faithful, the house of God, a holy nation, the bride of God, and so on.
But what of these elect? To what did God elect them? Isaiah wrote that they were elected to be, "God says, 'It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth'" (Isaiah 49.6). In other words, Israel was elected to bring the world to elected status.
Later, Jesus would tell the disciples to share the good news with "every creature" and that everyone who believed would be "saved" (Mark 16.15). Indeed, even Paul, in the infamous ninth chapter of Romans writes that non-Jews have become the elect of God, thus all peoples are elected through faith.
Amy's question is one of those questions where the Bible leaves us in tension. Yes, there are passages that support election by God. And yes, there are passages that refute election over choice. And so, I end this column with a quote from the one who would know best about the whole issue, Jesus: "Strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today's trouble is enough for today" (Matthew 6.33-34).