[A response to an email where I was asked, “Who chooses who? Do we choose God, or does God choose us?]
I believe the answer to your question begins with understanding that God’s work in man, His call, or the sowing of His seed, is ALWAYS previous to man’s response or work. Man, OF HIMSELF, cannot choose God, find God, know God, or even believe in God with true and living faith. Man, in his natural condition in the fall is “dead in sin and transgression”, a “child of wrath by nature”, and we are told that “the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth.” If the Lord left us in this condition, every one of us would perish apart from grace. But, as John tells us, we are able to “love Him, because He first loved us.” (1 John 4:19) And how did God love us first? He loved us by opening the way of redemption through the work of Christ, and by sowing the seed of His kingdom in every type of soil. Many soils reject this seed (because of their hardness, thorns, rocks, and weeds) and so experience little or nothing of its power. Others experience it for only a short time, but then quickly wither and languish because its root finds no room in their heart. But the opportunity is there for all.
I think the part that is confusing you is that God only “chooses” those who respond in humility to His grace, those who meekly and submissively yield to the work of His Spirit. If I had to describe the order, I might say something like this: Grace comes first, both as a work of God in Christ, and as a gift of Christ in man. THEN there is a response of the heart to either love His light, or to hate it (and so remain in darkness). And THEN God chooses all who love the light, who walk in the light, and by it put off the works of darkness. Or you could say, God “chooses” those who yield to His grace, and so find their life and salvation in Jesus Christ, the Chosen One. So first, “the grace of God appears to all men” (Tit 2:11). First, Christ offers Himself to all, as the “light that enlightens every man that comes in to the world” John 1:9. First the Sower goes out and throws His seed in every kind of soil. But only “those who RECEIVE Him are given POWER to BECOME sons of God” (John 1:12) It’s not like God just chooses a few rebellious, wicked, sons of wrath and decides to do good to them, but leaves the rest to wallow in their sin and blindness. No. He “died for all” (2 Cor 5:14-15), “tasted death for every man” (Heb 2:9). He calls “to all who labor and are heavy laden,” and seeks to “draw all men to Himself” (John 12:32), “desiring all men to be saved and come to the knowledge of Himself,” (1 Tim. 2:4) and is “not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance” (2 Pet 3:9). BUT only those who “receive with meekness the implanted Word” (Jam 1:21) are called “chosen”, because they are wilfully turning to find their life and their salvation in the only begotten Son of God.
It is for this reason that Jesus says “Many are called but few are chosen.” (Mat 20:16; 22:14) Think about this statement for a minute. Many (or I think you could say ALL) are called, but few are chosen. So the choosing comes AFTER the calling. Do you see? It doesn’t say “A few are chosen and then called.” No. God calls to all men by His grace, by His Seed sown in the heart, by His light that shines in them during his times of visitation. Paul says, “because what may be known of God is manifest in them, for God has shown it to them” (Rom 1:19). But those who reject grace, hide from light, cling to self, etc., these are not the chosen ones. The chosen are only those who give up freely to receive, follow, and obey the grace that comes from above. Or you could say, the elect are those who freely and willingly come to live in and by the ONLY Chosen One of God. These are “accepted in the Beloved.” (Eph 1:6)
There are only TWO BIRTHS in view in the whole reality of what is called predestination. And when men have not seen and felt these two births in themselves, then they always base the doctrine of predestination on something else. But there has always been only one birth that is rejected or reprobate, which is the first birth, the life or nature of the fallen fleshly man, who turned from and died to the life of God. And there has always been only one birth that is chosen or accepted, which is the new birth, or the birth of Christ’s life in the soul. God doesn’t randomly choose a few wicked people, force them to receive His grace, and pass by the others who are similarly “polluted and struggling in their blood.” (Ezek. 16:6) No. God offers light and life to all wicked people, and the ones who receive and follow, are those who “make their calling and election sure” (2 Pet. 1:10).
These two births are within us, not outside of us. I mean the distinction between what is chosen and what is condemned is found within each man, and not between one man and another man. These two births are the “Jacob” that God has loved, and the “Esau” that God has hated (Mal 1:1-3, Rom 9:13) since the very the time of our fall, when sin was found in the heart of man. The one birth is of the earth, hairy, wild, a hunter after flesh. He desires the inheritance but has squandered his birthright. The other birth is smooth and peaceful, and dwells in the tent. God’s election is not arbitrary. Nor is it based on what a man can do or be of himself, in his own “willing or running” (Rom 9:16). God’s election is based upon the birth that reigns in man, or the grace that works in man. I believe it is for this reason that Paul calls it “the election of grace.” (Rom 11:5). Grace is elected. Man apart from grace is rejected. And every human being who is born of a woman has the opportunity to “pass from death into life.” (John 5:24)
Now, with regard to the verses that you mentioned: Paul indeed says that there was a time when the Father “was pleased to reveal His Son in him,” (Gal 1:16) but this was NOT just a random selection. I mean, it was not as though God arbitrarily picked a man, and picked a date, and decided to reveal Christ in him. No. Paul was zealously (although blindly and wrongly) seeking to follow His own understanding of Scripture. He had zeal for God, but it was not according to true knowledge. He tells us in Acts 23:1 that even then, when he persecuted the church, he “had lived in all good conscience before God until this day.” He was ignorant of Christ, but he was trying (with a clean but confused conscience) to give his life and his heart to the Lord, and so God had mercy on Him and opened his eyes.
Jesus did say to His disciples, “You did not choose Me, but I have chosen you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit.” But, first of all, the choice mentioned here doesn’t seem to have anything to do with salvation, but is rather a choosing that has to do with their role or ministry, or with “going and bearing fruit.” But either way, I don’t think it is hard to see that His choice of them had to do with what was already at work in their hearts. Nathaniel, for example, was called an “Israelite without guile” before he was a follower of Christ. Peter, John, James, and Andrew dropped everything immediately in order to follow Christ. These weren’t just random wicked sinners that had no inward response to the call of God. They were men who (to some extent at least) had been turning at the reproofs of Wisdom, seeking the Messiah, looking for the salvation of Israel, with hearts that were contrite and teachable. That’s why they said, “We found Him!” They found the one that their hearts were already looking for. “We found Him of whom Moses in the law, and also the prophets, wrote!” (John 1:45). That’s why, upon seeing his first miracle, Peter had this response: “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord!” And that’s also why these men had already gone out to be baptized by John the Baptist, acknowledging and confessing their sins, and turning their hearts to God.
The other verse you mentioned was Ephesians 2:8 “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God,” This is most certainly true. Salvation is 100% by grace, and not by human effort. But grace can easily be refused, rejected, resisted, grieved, and quenched. Look at what Stephen said to all of the leaders of the Jews, “You stiff-necked and uncircumcised in heart and ears! You always resist the Holy Spirit; as your fathers did, so do you.” (Act 7:51). Paul talks about many who quench and grieve and frustrate the work of the Holy Spirit, who offers His life and light to man. Salvation is not a work of man, but rather a work of God. But salvation works in man based upon his submission to grace, or his rejection of it. Man has NO power to save Himself. But (as I discuss in a previous blog post), man has complete freedom to choose which power (God’s or Satan’s) he will subject his heart to. And for this reason Paul was sent “to turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God” (Acts 26:18).
I hope this clarifies the issue a little for you. Grace is first; it shines like the sun upon all. Many close their eyes, or turn away from the light, and so remain blind and never produce fruit. These are rejected.... not randomly, but because they resist the Spirit. But all who turn TO the grace, submitting their hearts to the work of grace, these are “chosen” to bear much fruit, by abiding and growing in the one chosen LIFE that God offers to man.