Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ,
To those who are elect exiles of the Dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia, according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, in the sanctification of the Spirit, for obedience to Jesus Christ and for sprinkling with his blood:
May grace and peace be multiplied to you.
—1 Peter 1:1–2 (ESV)
Election isn’t like that uncle you’d rather not own up to but must when directly asked. Election isn’t something the Biblical authors occasionally warm up to, burying in the back of their letters only after having made a multitude of qualifications. Peter leads with it.
If you want to be faithful to the Bible, you may not elect to not deal with election. You may not choose to avoid this choosing. Still, many deal with it by defining it such that it means nothing. Their definition is an un-definition. How this is done is by abusing a word that soon follows in Peter’s greeting, “foreknowledge.”
The saints are elect according to God’s foreknowledge. The un-definition of this is that God elected those He foreknew would choose Him. This is often called “conditional election.” God elects based on foreseen faith.
Such a view admits too much to being with. It admits that future events are known by God, and thus, these things cannot be changed. This means that out of all the possible worlds God could have created, He chose to create this one, in which He knew certain people would believe and others would not. God remains sovereign over salvation in a sense, but instead of a Sovereign whose grace touches us personally, His grace seems farther removed, almost deistic, as though God let the world loose only knowing where it would go but not guiding it there.
Regardless, do you see how such a un-definition destroys the clear meaning of the word “election.” If God chooses based on our choice, it is not He who ultimately chooses. This puts man behind God’s steering will. Imagine some henpecked husband is encouraged by his elders to take loving leadership in his home. He decides to start small by taking initiative in determining where they will dine their next date night. After opening the car door for her he boldly declares, “I choose to eat wherever you choose to eat.” He shouldn’t report to the elders, “I made the choice about dinner.” James Montgomery Boice says such a definition, “destroys the very meaning of the word, of course, for such election is really not election at all. It actually means that men and women elect themselves, and God is reduced to a bystander who responds to their free choice. Logically and causally, even if not chronologically, God’s choice follows man’s choice.”
“Foreknowledge” can mean knowing things ahead of time. Being omniscient, is true that God does know things before they happen. But is this all it can mean? Is this what it means here? 1 Peter is rich in using Old Testament terminology to speak of the church. This is what is being done when he refers to “elect exiles of the dispersion.” So perhaps we should go to the Old Testament to see what is meant by foreknowledge instead of assuming we know what is meant.
While “foreknow” isn’t used in the Old Testament, “know” is. For example, in Amos 3:2 God tells Israel, “You only have I known of all the families of the earth” (ESV). God certainly had cognizance of everyone in one sense. What is intended here is that God had a relational and covenantal knowledge of them as his people. Is this language picked up anywhere in the New Testament? Jesus will tell many who profess to prophesy, cast out demons, and do mighty works in His name, “I never knew you” (Matthew 7:23 ESV). On the flip side, in John 10:27 Jesus says, “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me” (ESV). In all these instances “know” doesn’t mean simple mental awareness but covenant relationship.
What then does it mean for God to foreknow His people? It means that before they are capable of knowing Him in any relationship, He relates to them by setting His covenant love on them. Two things confirm this. In the New Testament usage of “foreknow,” it is never an act, such as faith, but persons who are foreknown. Second, the text says not only are we elect exiles according to the foreknowledge of God, but that we were elect “for obedience to Jesus Christ.” This obedience is the obedience of faith (Romans 1:5; 10:16; 15:18; 16:25–26). You are not elect based on foreseen future belief; you believe because of an election in eternity past.
Michael Horton says, “We can talk about grace, sing about grace, preach about grace, just so long as we do not get too close to it. Election is too close. When we give in to election, we finally give up on ourselves in the matter of salvation.” Un-define election, and you can sing about grace, but the thing is, there isn’t as much grace to sing about. Hollow out the meaning of election, and you hollow out the meaning of grace, such that Peter’s blessing doesn’t ring out as powerfully, “May grace and peace be multiplied to you.”