The doctrine of election tries to make sense of the many verses of the Bible that talk about God’s role in choosing a group of people with whom to have a very special relationship. In the Old Testament this group is Israel. With the coming of Christ and Israel’s rejection of Messiah, as we see especially in the writings of Paul, Gentiles are included with the result that new Israel emerges—the church (also referred to as “the body of Christ”).
Election answers the question: how do Christians become members of that chosen group, the church?
The nature of the subject means that discussions of this doctrine are, of necessity, discussions of matters of which we have little knowledge. Indeed, they are matters about which God has chosen to disclose very little in his Word. We therefore must proceed with caution and recall that the aim of theological discussion isn’t as much to solve a logical problem but to encounter a gracious God who in Christ extends mercy to those who desire it least.
The Reformed doctrine of election understands that Christians are converted and become part of “the body of Christ”—are united to Christ, in the language of Paul–because God has chosen them. Not only has God chosen them, but God has acted by the agency of the Holy Spirit to give them the capacity to respond positively to the proclamation of the Gospel in faith. This may be differentiated from God’s foreknowledge, which is simply God’s knowledge of the future. Election—a subset of predestination—extends beyond knowledge of the future to God’s control or creation of the future. As such, election is the positive outworking of predestination.
God’s election of some to salvation occurs prior to and independently of the individual’s decision to identify as a Christian. Election is positive predestination or the positive choice of God to save a sinner. It is something that is freely chosen by an individual yet it cannot be said to be refuse-able.
Its opposite—negative predestination—is referred to as reprobation. Reprobation is God’s passing over of some and by neglecting to extend grace to them thereby effectively permits them to be damned. It should be noted that in his natural state a man effectively chooses to damn himself and consequently it is more accurate to state that God allows a man to damn himself.