First Things First: You Are Chosen
The very first word Peter uses for these Christians is “elect” or “chosen.” You can’t see that in the NASB or KJV or RSV. But you can in the NIV. The word order that Peter used when he wrote the Greek was: “Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, to the elect”—the elect aliens of the dispersion. The reason most of the English versions change the word order and put the word “chosen” at the end of the list of five Roman Provinces is so that it is more obvious that the phrases of verse 2 define God’s election.
Verse two defines election with three phrases: first Christians are elect “according to the foreknowledge of God the Father.” Second, Christians are elect “by (or in) the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit.” Third, Christians are elect “that you may obey Jesus Christ and be sprinkled with his blood.”
So three things are said about our election: we are told something about its origin and basis in God’s foreknowledge. We are told something about the way it becomes real and actual in our lives by the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit. And we are told something about the goal or purpose of election: that we might obey Jesus and go on benefiting from his cleansing blood.
This is so crucial that we see the connection between these three things in verse 2 that most English versions move the word “elect” or “chosen” closer to verse 2 to make the connection plain.
But in doing that we lose as well as gain. We don’t see as clearly that the very first thing Peter says about the Christians is not just that they are aliens (or exiles), but that they are elect aliens. “Peter, an apostle of Christ Jesus, to the elect aliens. . .”
I stress this because I think the first thing you say about someone when you write them is important. There is a reason for putting it first. If I wrote a letter to my son and said, “Dear Karsten, you are God’s chosen one, as you live in this world, an alien from your true citizenship in heaven,”—if I wrote that way, I would have a reason for calling him elect at the very beginning, I would mean something by it.
One thing we can say for sure about Peter’s meaning is that it is not hidden. When you put something first, you are not trying to hide it. That’s important, because today we sometimes think the doctrine of election should be hidden. This is not the case in the New Testament. Jesus didn’t hide it. Matthew didn’t hide it. Paul didn’t hide it. Peter didn’t hide it. John didn’t hide it. It is spoken of in a natural, forthright way by Jesus and his apostles. That’s the way we should speak of it too.
Election Means Alienation
Another thing we can say is that Peter mentions election in direct connection with our alien status in the world. This probably tells us the main reason Peter begins with election. He wants to emphasize that we are aliens not mainly because men have rejected us, but because God has chosen us.
Being an alien has its pain. In fact this whole book is about the pain of being an alien in the world. Verse 6: “You are distressed by various trials.” In 2:11: foreign “lusts wage war against your soul.” In 2:21: you have been called to suffer. In 3:16: they revile your good behavior. In 4:4: they malign you for not running with them anymore. In 4:14: you are reviled for the name of Christ.
And being an exile usually means that you have been rejected by some group of people and forced to live in another place that’s not your home. It means being a refugee. Alienation and exile and refugee status is virtually synonymous with being rejected.
Peter knows this. And he knows he is going to really emphasize this alien status and this suffering and rejection. So he begins by saying: that is not the main meaning of your exile. That is not the main meaning of your alien condition in the world. The main meaning of your exile is that God chose you out of the world. Not man’s rejection, but God’s election is the main meaning of your life.
I think that’s why Peter starts with election. He wants to give them a God-centered explanation of their exile in the world. Your lives are rooted in God’s eternal election. Your pain is rooted in God’s eternal election. Your rejection by men is rooted in God’s eternal election. Don’t think that all these things—all the troubles of being Christian foreigners—is owing to God’s rejecting you. It is owing to God’s electing you.
So Peter does not hide election. Instead he puts it first and foremost—the first thing he says about the Christians. And he connects it with our existence as aliens and exiles in the world. In other words he wants us to hear a clear, up-front, forthright explanation that our lives get their distinctive Christian meaning from our being chosen by God. He wants us to have an identity not just as aliens, but as elect aliens. Our identity is not mainly that we are rejected by the world, but that we are chosen by God.
Doctrine Isn’t Disposable
Let me linger over this just a moment. America is a practical, make-it-happen country. And the evangelical church has that same atmosphere. Give us how-to’s not doctrine. So you have major conferences on how to grow successful churches that boldly say, “We don’t get into doctrine and theology.” And the vast majority of the church seems to hear that as a virtue.
The more I read the Bible the less I sympathize with this view. The apostles saw doctrine as tremendously practical. When Peter begins his letter with the phrase “elect aliens,” he means to give practical help to aliens. And he believes it is practically helpful to know that you are among the elect. So I urge you not to be like the pragmatists who belittle doctrines like election. Rather, be like the apostles who cherish the doctrine of election and put it at the very front of their concerns, because it is so urgently practical for living like free and joyful aliens in a foreign world.
Could it be that one of the reasons the church is weak today is because we are constantly trying to take practical short cuts to strength and growth. Maybe we are meant to be strong in faith and love and hope and joy and practical service not in spite of doctrine, but because of doctrine.
Keep this in mind as we look at verse 2. What Peter does here is teach us three things about divine election. All this in the first sentence of his letter—that’s how important it is. Amazing!
Election Engulfs Us in God
There are three phrases in verse 2 that tell us about our election. 1) We are elect “according to the foreknowledge of God.” We are elect “by (or in) the sanctifying work of the Spirit. 3) We are elect “that [we] may obey Jesus Christ and be sprinkled by his blood.”
There are a couple clues here that Peter really wants you to understand your life in the world in relation to God. He wants you to see all your life connected to God in a certain way.
The first clue is that he engulfs you with God’s electing initiative. He puts election behind you. He puts election in you. He puts election in front of you. That’s what those three phrases do. Behind you is the basis of God’s election in the foreknowledge of God. In you is the experience of election in the sanctifying work of the Spirit. In front of you is the destiny of election to obey Jesus Christ and take refuge in his sprinkled blood. Peter engulfs us with election. He really wants us to get this. To live out of it and to live in it and to live for it.
The second clue is that these three dimensions of election are each related to a different divine Person of the Trinity. Our election is rooted in the foreknowledge of God the Father. Our election is experienced by the sanctifying work of the Spirit. And the aim of our election is that we obey Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
What’s clear from this is that Peter is not throwing words away. Everything is chosen to engulf us in God. And the best way to engulf us in God is to press home the doctrine of election with its past origin and its present experience and its future purpose, and to show that the whole Trinity is involved in your life from beginning to end.
Doesn’t it strike you as strange that the apostle of the Lord Jesus, writing to struggling churches in trial and distress, should begin with such profound teaching on divine election, even before his greeting is out? And yet today many apostles of church growth and health begin their conferences with, “We don’t get into theology.” I confess I do not understand this.
But I do know what God calls me to do here, and that is to teach and inspire and try to strengthen this church (your hearts) the way the apostles did: with clear, forthright, up-front truth about God and his wonderful ways to the children of men, including election.
“Chosen According to the Foreknowledge of God”
Take the first phrase of verse 2. We are elect “according to the foreknowledge of God the Father.” What is the basis of our election? Why did God choose me for his own? Or, to put it very personally, what will be your bottom-line answer to God when he asks, how is it that you came to believe on me and be saved while others did not?
Peter’s answer is, “God foreknew me.” Elect according to God’s foreknowledge. But what does that mean? Does it mean that I really elected myself and then God knew that I would do that, so he chose me on the basis of my self-election. Is that what “God’s foreknowledge” is?
I don’t think so. Jesus said, “You did not choose me, but I chose you” (John 15:16). Our choosing God is based on God’s choosing us, not vice versa.
God’s foreknowledge of his people is not merely his awareness of what they will do. His foreknowledge of his people is his acknowledgement of them as his, or his recognition of them. Let me give your two examples of this kind of knowing.
1. In Psalm 1:6 it says, “The Lord knows the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish.” This does not mean he is aware of the way of the righteous but ignorant of the way of the wicked. It means he acknowledges the way of the righteous. God’s knowing of his people is his approving and acknowledging.
2. In Amos 3:2 God says to Israel, “You only have I known among all the families of the earth.” This does not mean that God is only aware of the existence of Israel, but that he only acknowledges Israel as his own. He only recognizes Israel as his people.
This is the background for Peter’s words in 1 Peter 2:9 when he says to the churches, “You are a chosen race.” He doesn’t mean that God looked for a people who already believed on him and then chose them for his own. It means that he sovereignly chose Abraham (Nehemiah 9:7), while he was still serving other gods (Joshua 24:2-3), to be the father of Israel. And that choosing is called “knowing” in Genesis 18:19: “In him all the nations will be blessed, for I have known him.”
That’s the background of 1 Peter 1:2: “elect according to the foreknowledge of God.” Before the foundation of the world God knew who were his: he acknowledged us and bestowed on us the recognition of his own. That’s the foundation of election. It is not owing to our birth or our achievements or our religion or our works or our virtue or our faith. It is owing to God’s free acknowledgement of whom he will in the counsel of his wisdom.
“Chosen…By the Sanctifying Work of the Spirit”
The second phrase in verse 2 shows how the sovereign work of God in election comes to expression in us. Elect “by (or in) the sanctifying work of the Spirit.” This is the same way Paul spoke of election in 2 Thessalonians 2:13, “God has chosen you from the beginning for salvation through by the sanctifying work of the Spirit.”
God the Spirit cooperates with God the Father in taking the eternal decree of the Father that you are chosen, and turning that decree into practical holiness by his powerful work in your life.
I speak to believers this morning to establish your hearts in the truth. God wants you to know today that none of the hardships you undergo as aliens and exiles in this world is a surprise to God. He has chosen you for this. It is part of your purifying discipline. Your troubles as an exile here are not absurd, meaningless results of your own shortsighted, fallible choices. They are the loving plan and wisdom of God’s all-seeing, infallible choice. Your exile life is rooted in God. You are engulfed in the electing love of God the Father, God the Spirit and God the Son. Your life is from him and through him and for him.
Dwell on this truth. Let it sink in and touch the deepest core of your identity. God the Father has chosen you. The Holy Spirit is sanctifying you.