“But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.” (1 Peter 2:9)
“Still another said, ‘I will follow you, Lord; but first let me go back and say goodbye to my family.’
“Jesus replied, ‘No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God.’” (Luke 9:61-62)
Despite what many nonbelievers and ex-church attenders may believe or insist, Christianity is a voluntary proposition. You choose to believe or, following that initial commitment, to obey. (What influences you up to and at the moment of believing is a 500-year old theological chestnut that I’ll leave out of this discussion.)
The command, which Jesus said was the most important, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind,” (Mt 22:37) implies the same type of conscious decision that an Israelite would have made in slaughtering and bringing a sacrifice to the Lord before that system became obsolete through Christ. You choose, you act—or you don’t.
When Christianity became the official imperial religion of Rome in the 4th century, some of the dynamics of being a believer changed, but not the fundamental act of choosing. The faithful went from being a large minority to the favorite of the Christian emperors, so it invited the same kind of religion-for-appearances’-sake Jesus condemned in the Pharisees. Faith could be shallow but still acceptable.
But look at the state churches in Europe that are the vestige of the Roman tilt toward Christianity and the Holy Roman Empire that once dominated western Europe. Obligation and compulsion don’t make for a robust, resilient faith. Love does, and that is given voluntarily.
And that choice has its privileges. Peter said we are “a chosen people” (Gk eklektos), and like the English word eclectic derived from it, denotes a careful selection; especially beloved; choice; precious. We occupy a special place in the eyes of the Lord which by itself is a great privilege.
To give you one practical example, within the first ten years that I was a believer, the Holy Spirit laid a special emphasis on purging my mind and spirit of self-condemnation. I was very prone to harshly criticize myself if my attitude, my words or my performance under various circumstances didn’t measure up to what I felt I should be.
Like a flashing traffic signal, whenever I walked away from something berating myself for a subpar effort, the word Condemnation! would pop into my mind. I knew that Romans 8:1 said definitively “there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”
These gentle reminders, like something a loving parent or solicitous mentor might give, eventually brought balance to my views of myself, flattening out the roller coaster-like peaks of conceit and dips of self-condemnation. It’s one of the privileges of believing to have the Holy Spirit thus “guide you into all the truth” (Jn 16:13) like a museum docent or a trail guide leads you rather than just reading printed words on a page.
But over the past twenty years, an overemphasis on privilege and favor has adulterated the concept of discipleship to a dangerous degree. It’s not hard to understand the popularity of these ministries given the harsh and censorious attitudes that believers have encountered in legalistic, controlling churches. But this “wind of doctrine” has blown so far in the opposite direction that if you fell out of a moving car some would prophesy that the asphalt would turn to sofa cushions just before you landed.
And the crux of the matter is this: While we may be “a chosen people,” does that mean we have virtually unrestricted latitude in the choices we make, as long as we steer clear of gross immorality or rebellion?
In general terms, we technically have the choice to follow or ignore the Lord’s voice. That’s implied in the exhortation, “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts” (Ps 95:7-8). There are consequences, of course, but not necessarily an unrelenting pressure to listen and obey.
Here, as I often do, I’ll use my life as an example. In many ways the paths the Lord has led me down are quite unusual, so I am not implying that my life is a template or an ideal. But it does illustrate some possibilities that lie outside conventional understandings of the faith.
As I wrote in The name, the photo and the reason I do this, I was offered an entry-level bureau reporter’s job at a daily newspaper when I finished grad school that I turned down—at the Lord’s behest and for no other reason. I made a choice to obey, but that placed me in a situation outside my field of training where suddenly my choices for ways to pay the rent had shrunk.
I ended up becoming a carpenter’s helper at age 25. Many persons in the trades start out helping their fathers or uncles while they are teenagers. I had a master’s degree in journalism and zero knowledge of carpentry. The first day on the job I climbed up on a scaffold plank where a carpenter asked me if I had just finished high school.
Did I have to stay there? No, but where do I go (1) where I won’t be like a fish out of water and (2) I can earn a passable wage and possibly advance? Become a cashier at a convenience store? Deliver flowers or office supplies? Sell used cars when my personality was the polar opposite of a proficient salesman’s? I was still part of the “chosen people” but my choices were circumscribed—by God’s design.
And then, as I wrote in The greatest love, while I was a senior in college, I broke off a romantic relationship with a woman that I was sure I wanted to marry—again, at the Lord’s prompting. There was nothing illicit or inherently sinful about the relationship itself. We were two Christians who loved each other and seemed like a perfect match.
Chosen, specially loved, precious, the apple of his eye, I was still all of these, but God had made a choice for me that I wouldn’t have made myself. In fact, the rocky road of half-hearted obedience that slid into rebellion over the ensuing months was testimony to way the Lord had, strictly speaking, not removed my freedom to try wriggle out of it, but he had circumscribed my choices once again.
All of this should demonstrate that being “chosen” comes with a price tag. In the parable of the wedding banquet (Mt 22:1-14), Jesus had the king in the story say, “Many are called, but few are chosen.” Both the Pharisees and Sadducees— “natural” pillars on which to build the kingdom in their own eyes—met their match in Jesus that same day when they tried to trap him in his words or make a critical theological mistake.
“’The wedding feast is ready, but those invited were not worthy,’ the king said” (22:8). So the king sent out his servants to invite others. “Those servants went out into the highways, and gathered together all as many as they found, both bad and good: and the wedding was furnished with guests” (22:10).
“Understand, then, that it is not because of your righteousness that the Lord your God is giving you this good land to possess” (Dt 9:6) because, of course, there is none righteous. But the king in the parable found a wedding guest “without wedding clothes”—not clothed in righteousness through Christ and from continued obedience—and cast him out.
“From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked” (Lk 12:48). To be chosen is to receive much indeed; to enjoy that privilege “much more will be asked.”