What does it mean to be “God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved” (Col. 3:12a)? We’ll get to that, but right now it may be more important and instructive to take note of the context in which these terms are found.
Don’t think for a moment that Paul wasn’t keenly aware of what had preceded in chapter three and what would immediately follow. He’s been talking, rather forcefully and graphically, about our ethical responsibility, our moral obligation as Christian men and women to avoid sexual immorality, covetousness, anger, and lying, just to mention a few (see Col. 3:5-10). Beginning with 3:12 he will turn to more positive expressions of Christian behavior, such as compassion, kindness, humility, forgiveness, love, again just to mention a few.
Some would argue that the worst possible thing you can do in such a setting is remind your readers of their privileges. They fear that to do so would undermine the urgency with which they respond to the many exhortations and moral imperatives that follow. “If you tell people that God has already chosen them and already consecrated them and already loves them, don’t you rob them of any incentive to be holy? Shouldn’t such blessings be held forth as the reward for obedience, as the proverbial ‘pot of gold’ at the end of the rainbow of diligence and effort and meticulous observance of God’s rules?” No!
Far from undermining holiness of life, the apostle believed that such glorious blessings undergird it. It is precisely because you are chosen of God and beloved that you must heed Paul’s exhortations. It is “as” God’s elect, sanctified, beloved people that Paul now commands we put on compassion and humility and love.
Anyone who might reason otherwise knows little, if anything, of God’s grace. To say to yourself, “As God’s elect people we are exempt from excessive concern with behavior,” is to betray a massive distortion of the nature of saving grace, indeed, of the very nature of Christianity itself. To think that privilege and status and security somehow release the soul from moral accountability is directly contrary to everything Paul has written and will write in this letter.
The grace of God has appeared in the person and work of Christ precisely to train us “to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age” (Titus 2:12). Having been sovereignly selected by God for salvation, set apart unto himself by his mercy (this is the sense in which we are here called “holy”), and being made the focus and object of his affection and love, are the reason for righteous behavior, not an excuse for sinful self-indulgence or a badge of honor that elevates one above the responsibilities of less favored folk.
Paul’s design in describing the Colossians (and us) with such exalted language isn’t to lull them into spiritual slumber and moral indifference but to shock them, so to speak, with the stunning realization of who they are in Christ. He’s determined to awaken them to the awesome task of living a life that honors the Lord and distinguishes them from the ways of the world. I can almost hear him shouting: “People! Do you have any idea who you are? Elect! Holy! Beloved! And do you know who’s responsible for this? God, not you! Here, then, is how you are to live: be compassionate, kind, humble, meek, patient, bearing with one another, forgiving one another, etc.”
Are you suffering from an identity crisis? Do you struggle to know who you are? If so, let’s put it to rest here and now. If you know Jesus Christ as your savior you are one of “God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved” (Col. 3:12). Do you really need to know anything else? Is it not enough to know you are the object of the saving, sovereign love of an infinitely righteous and powerful and holy God?
You are, literally, “elect of God.” The ESV renders this “God’s chosen ones,” emphasizing the notion of possession or ownership. That’s certainly involved, but I think Paul’s emphasis is on the fact that it is God who has made this choice. You are the elect “of God” in the sense of being chosen “by God” (the NASV renders it, “as those who have been chosen of God”). This decision emanated from him and him alone. It wasn’t your choice or mine. It was his.
Not everyone likes the doctrine of election, but God does! We were chosen according to his “will”. God didn’t predestine us unwillingly, grudgingly, or reluctantly. He wanted to do it. He delighted to do it. Choosing hell-deserving sinners to spend an eternity with him as his beloved children is uniquely joyful and pleasing and exciting and satisfying to the heart of God! It pleased the Lord to set his love upon you. It made him happy.
We must never think of election as a dispassionate choice on God’s part, as if it meant little to him or was discharged without feeling or thought or joy. According to Deuteronomy 10:14-15, although both heaven and earth belong to God, he “SET HIS HEART IN LOVE on your fathers and chose their offspring after them, you above all peoples, as you are this day” (emphasis mine).
Jesus “rejoiced in the Holy Spirit” as he contemplated the Father’s electing love, and declared: “for such was YOUR GRACIOUS WILL” (Matthew 11:26; Luke 10:21), or perhaps more accurately, “your good pleasure.” God enjoys election, and so must we.
So what should be our response to all this? How does it make you feel to know that you are his “beloved”? What should you do, knowing that you are the recipient of his infinite affection, joy, and favor? Paul’s answer: Change clothes! Strip off immorality and idolatry and malice. Put on compassion and purity and forgiveness. That’s a start anyway.