How do you explain to someone what it means to be "chosen in Christ"? People tie their minds in knots over election. Here goes the tail-chasing: If God gets his way then he picks who goes to heaven and who goes to hell; Christ dies for those he picked; God didn't really love the other people; God does not even intend good towards most people; God could save all if he wanted but does not want ...
This is a popular, popular view of "election" -- but it turns election into something unScriptural. It turns "election" into something Christless, something to which Christ is added later, instead of placing Christ firmly as the cause of election, instead of "Christ in you" as the definition of election. And that view of election also wreaks havoc with any rational and balanced idea of a loving, just, and merciful God -- a trustworthy God -- a God in whom you can actually have faith as opposed to merely submission and obedience and perhaps awe at his power and fear of his wrath.
Some camps take Judgment Day as their starting point and reason backward in time: at the Last Day some people have God's favor and others are condemned. Therefore, they reason, God must not have wanted to save them. But here we have run against the plain meaning of so many Scriptures that the conclusion is untenable. Other camps know from Scripture that God loves all people in a meaningful way and they reason forward from God's love. They reason that in Christ God sends an offer; that some take it and some leave it; that some are capable of taking it. But here again we have run against the plain meaning of Scripture, and the conclusion is untenable. Where did they go off track?
Both have missed the same point, which I'd sum up as, "What does Christ have to do with it?" To be sure those views each have places for Christ -- but not the key place, the decisive place, the place of honor, the cornerstone, the foundation. Both camps look at Christ's incarnation, death, and resurrection, ask the question "What does that have to do with me and my salvation?" and answer "Nothing by itself, unless something else is added to it." Some add God's will in favor of some and against others into the mix. Some add man's will into the mix. Neither allows Christ to genuinely be the mediator.
Of course man's will comes into play: but apart from Christ man is incapable of turning to the God who should condemn him. The idea that man turns to God apart from Christ, knowing that a faithful God would destroy him, is nonsense. Of course God's will comes into play: but apart from Christ, God's does not love a rebellious sinner that he should condemn. The idea that God looks on favor towards some, apart from Christ, and then sends Christ to them is nonsense. God can offer a rebellious sinner only death. A sinner remains a rebel as long as he can expect only death. A sinner only turns towards mercy and life. God only turns towards the pure. Outside of Christ, God and man only meet in judgment. Where God meets man with mercy is only in Christ. Where man turns to God for healing is only in Christ.
In Christ, love and faithfulness meet together. In Christ, evil is condemned. Christ dies, and we die with him. God is satisfied with his son, and with all who are in his son. The evil is destroyed and put to death in Christ -- because we are in Christ. In Christ's death, our evil dies and we nail our sins to the cross with him. Christ is raised, and we are raised with him. New life is given us, new hearts, a new spirit, a new birth. God turns to us, and we turn to God.
Time and again, I have heard people ask some version of this: "but how, exactly, does this happen?" Usually this means, "You can't mean it's all done in and through Christ. No, really, what else is there?" Christ is it. Christ is God's wisdom. Christ is God's power for our salvation. The answer is Christ. There is not some other answer besides Christ and outside of Christ. It's all about the encounter with Christ. The Bible discusses at least four possible outcomes of the encounter with Christ in the parable of the sower: Some don't understand and the new life does not take root; some understand well enough for easy times but not hard times, so that the new life begins growing but then dies; some have the new life growing but it is crowded out by the rest of our lives (I think most of us are like this); some rest fully in Christ and become productive and beautiful things to celebrate. To be sure, the parable of the sower does not cover all the varieties of "lost" reactions seen in Scripture. There is also the complete hatred of Christ that comes from the fact that he shows us our sin in all its ugliness. But even such people as these have been known to be changed by the encounter with Christ. Saul of Tarsus springs to mind.
From the viewpoint of an evangelist out to "sow the seed" -- to proclaim Christ -- there are some practical applications. If someone does not understand at first, we are patient. Or we try again after they're more shaken up, more open. Remember the parable of the prodigal son? The best thing that ever happened to him was the famine. Life is like that, we'll all be humbled at times. God gives grace to the humble. If someone is too proud to listen to a message of help and humility now, the day may come later when they are not too proud to listen to a message of help and humility. When we see someone struggling with the hard times -- and that's all of us sometimes -- we shade them and shelter them, but we also help them put down deeper roots. The "name it and claim it" and "victorious life" crowds just set people up for failure at hard times. Suffering, pain, and death are not signs of God's hatred -- they are the birthpangs of the new life. The new life does not come unless the old life dies -- the life at enmity with God. It hurts when the old life dies, and every thing we ever depended on apart from God is shown to be at best a shadow of him and at worst a distraction from him. If we hold onto that old life, we die entirely with it under God's judgment. We are lost. If we hold onto Christ, the old life dies under God's judgment and we are raised to new life with Christ.
The encounter with Christ changes us; it also frees us. Without him, we are slaves to sin. If anyone imagines those are just words, remember the times you've struggled not to do something and have done it anyway. Sin's the boss and we're just following orders. Reluctantly maybe, eagerly maybe, but either way we have trouble resisting. Christ sets us free.
And what about Judgment Day? Still some are saved and some are lost. They are not lost because God did not care to save them. They are lost because salvation was in Christ; the light came and they loved darkness better. Christ saves us -- salvation is from God. But God does not compel that we receive him any more than he compels obedience to his moral law. The phrase "irresistible grace" contains a very bad misunderstanding of what "grace" is. "Grace" is a favorable relationship, or the various results and benefits of a favorable relationship. "Repentance" is a change of heart, a transformation from the encounter with the message of forgiveness, death, and resurrection in Christ. Christ himself, then, is the channel of God's grace to us: grace comes through Christ. But nothing about the grace of Christ compels repentance, compels us to change.
Why does God not compel our repentance, if he truly loves us? Consider how we are made: in God's image. Consider why we were able to fall: because we bear God's image. Again, as best I can see, God took such a risk not because he desired the resulting evil, but because he desired such a great good. If God saves us -- who is it that he is saving? If we are saved by dying and being reborn, renewed in his image, then what happens to ourselves? If God re-creates us by force, either we no longer bear his image, or we are no longer who we were in any sense at all. We would not be "redeemed" by this forceful re-creation; there would be no continuity at all between us now and us then. The "self" that is redeemed would not be itself any longer. The thing that is "redeemed" against its will would be a new creation without any continuity with the old. God might as well have started over on a new planet if there is no continuity between the old that is being redeemed and the new that is redeemed.
Apart from Christ, man is enslaved to sin. We cannot choose God; we cannot want to approach that which will condemn us. God chooses us in Christ, not apart from Christ. Christ sets us free. But from there, we can still live or die. Have you ever heard of "prevenient grace"? Some people use that to mean the grace that comes to us before our conversion. In a view which maintains that grace comes through Christ, "prevenient grace" means that Christ has died for us, Christ has turned aside God's wrath, and there is a safe and holy place to meet God, a refuge for the sinner: Christ. Christ has died for the whole world. It does not therefore follow that the whole world will be saved; this is because salvation is not a mere transaction. Our place is to bring the message of Christ to people so that they may encounter the living Lord. He alone can set them free. And neither is God's will a mystery in this regard: he wills to redeem the world through Christ. He who receives him receives the one who sent him; he who rejects him rejects the one who sent him. That is God's will in regards to judgment and salvation.
And us? We are not chosen in and of ourselves as if we of all sinners had found special favor in God's sight. We are chosen in Christ. Apart from Christ, we have no relationship to God but that of condemnation: we rebel against him and make ourselves idols and selfish tyrants each after our own scale; he condemns this, and rightly. Time and again, the Scriptures link being God's chosen people to being in Christ.
So the answer about our salvation is this: Christ. There is no other answer.