Studying the Bible is one of the greatest gifts God has given His people, and within that, Paul’s letter to the church in and around the city of Ephesus is one of my favourite letters for how it has so often spoken to me. ‘Studies in Ephesians’ is my attempt to share, in written form, those lessons and promises that God has revealed to me in my studies through this magnificent book.
“For He chose us in Him, before the foundation of the world, to be holy and blameless in His sight. In love He predestined us to be adopted through Jesus Christ for Himself, according to His favour and will, to the praise of His glorious grace that He favoured us with in the Beloved.” — Ephesians 1:4-6
One of the most difficult and controversial issues to talk about within the church is the idea of predestination versus free will – did God choose us, or did we choose God? The story is told of a group of theologians who were discussing the tension between these two opposing views, and things became so heated that the group broke up into two opposing factions.
But one man, not knowing which to join, stood for a moment trying to decide. At last he joined the predestination group. “Who sent you here?” they asked. “No one sent me,” he replied. “I came of my own free will.” “Free will!” they exclaimed. “You can’t join us! You belong with the other group!”
So he followed their orders and went to the other clique. There someone asked, “When did you decide to join us?” The young man replied, “Well, I didn’t really decide–I was sent here.” “Sent here!” they shouted. “You can’t join us unless you have decided by your own free will!”
That Paul so readily introduces this issue in the fourth verse of his letter to the Ephesians suggests, however, that he didn’t view it as such a controversial topic. Interestingly, many commentators over the last little while have begun making an important distinction when they come to this passage, namely, that Paul does not address those who are not chosen, but only those who are chosen.
This might seem an odd distinction to make, but in an effort to stay true to what Paul originally intended to teach, it is vitally important for us to realise that this passage does not address the entire theology of predestination, but only one aspect of it that Paul believed was relevant to those who would read his letter.
By explaining that God chose us in Christ (Ephesians 1:4) Paul is not also making a case that God did not choose others, rather, he is only addressing Christians – those who have been chosen. Furthermore, Paul is not just addressing a theological abstract, but is giving instructions to those who have been chosen in Christ – instructions that have no relevance to those not chosen.
Furthermore, I want to make the case that predestination, or election, as it is also called, is not necessarily something God has given us to understand. It is the perfect example of human arrogance and self-entitlement that we inherently believe we should understand everything about God and His plans. The reality is, God chooses not to reveal everything to us:
The hidden things belong to the Lord our God, but the revealed things belong to us and our children forever, so that we may follow all the words of this law. —Deuteronomy 29:29
This falls under what many call the ‘doctrine of incomprehensibility’; as R.C. Sproul explains, “God remains incomprehensible because He reveals Himself without revealing everything there is to know about Him.” In Isaiah, the Lord says:
“For My thoughts are not your thoughts,
and your ways are not My ways.”
This is the Lord’s declaration.
“For as heaven is higher than earth,
so My ways are higher than your ways,
and My thoughts than your thoughts.” — Isaiah 55:8-9
It is good to seek answers to predestination and election, but it is arrogant to assume that those answers inherently exist for us to find. Sometimes, we simply have to acknowledge that God has hidden things from us. The great John Stott believed it unlikely “that we shall discover a simple solution to a problem [like predestination] which has baffled the best brains of Christendom for centuries.” For now, I think it enough to (extensively) quote from Charles Haddon Spurgeon, writing in his autobiography:
“The system of truth is not one straight line, but two. No man will ever get a right view of the gospel until he knows how to look at the two lines at once.
“I see in one place, God presiding over all in providence; and yet I see, and I cannot help seeing, that man acts as he pleases, and that God has left his actions to his own will, in a great measure.
“Now, if I were to declare that man was so free to act, that there was no presidence of God over his actions, I should be driven very near to Atheism; and if, on the other hand, I declare that God so overrules all things, as that man is not free enough to be responsible, I am driven at once into Antinomianism or fatalism.
“That God predestines, and that man is responsible, are two things that few can see. They are believed to be inconsistent and contradictory; but they are not. It is just the fault of our weak judgment. Two truths cannot be contradictory to each other.
“If, then, I find taught in one place that everything is fore-ordained, that is true; and if I find in another place that man is responsible for all his actions, that is true; and it is my folly that leads me to imagine that two truths can ever contradict each other.
“These two truths, I do not believe, can ever be welded into one upon any human anvil, but one they shall be in eternity: they are two lines that are so nearly parallel, that the mind that shall pursue them farthest, will never discover that they converge; but they do converge, and they will meet somewhere in eternity, close to the throne of God, whence all truth doth spring.”
So we must approach these verses appropriately, and not attempt to subsume them into a larger theological issue they were not originally intended for. Yes, these verses play a part in the wider theology of predestination and election, but their original intent was to instruct Christians
Therefore, let us look at what Paul did have in mind.
Of foremost importance is to remember that our passage sits amidst a massive single sentence, and cannot be taken out of that context, to be either over-hyped or dismissed. This passage is the first example that Paul lists of the blessings that we as Christians have in Christ. Secondly, this passage explains why we should “Praise the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ”.
James Montgomery Boice describes election as “a great blessing of the gospel”, and outlines four ways in which this is so: Election eliminates boasting; Election gives assurance of salvation; Election leads to holiness; Election promotes evangelism. Truly though, while these only begin to brush the surface of the blessing of election, maybe the most important of these is the way in which our election in Christ brings assurance – not only of salvation, but of God’s love and involvement in our lives.
Who doesn’t want to be chosen? While I was never picked last for a sport team in school, being far too athletic for my own good in my youth, being passed over or rejected is the hallmark of being a writer. We all have examples from our life where we have been ignored, or dismissed, or simply left until last. However, what Paul is saying here is that not only have we been chosen by the creator of the universe, but that we have been chosen “before the foundation of the world”. Not only was the world not created yet, existence didn’t exist yet. Joni Mitchell famously sang that “We are stardust, billion year old carbon”, but before there was even stardust or carbon, before an iota of our universe existed, God had a plan. It was a plan to save us from ourselves. John Stott says that God, “In that pre-creation eternity … did something. He formed a purpose in his mind. This purpose concerned both Christ (his only begotten Son) and us (whom he proposed to make his adopted sons, and indeed daughters, for of course the world embraces both sexes).” A portion of this purpose was originally uncovered in the Old Testament, with the nation of Israel. William W. Klein notes that Paul’s words here reflects “deep theological meaning in both Testaments, growing out of God’s selection of Israel as his covenantal people”.
But you, Israel, My servant,
Jacob, whom I have chosen,
descendant of Abraham, My friend—
I brought you from the ends of the earth
and called you from its farthest corners.
I said to you: You are My servant;
I have chosen you and not rejected you. — Isaiah 41:8-9
This had important ramifications for the people of Israel, who cherished (for the most part, when they remembered to) their chosen status. Andreas J. Köstenberger explains that, when we look at Genesis, we don’t see “that God created the world and later became the God of Israel, but rather that the God of Israel in the beginning created the world. Creation, in other words, is the first act of the faithful, covenant-keeping God.” That same ‘covenant-keeping God’ not only intended to choose Israel, but as is revealed in the New Testament, through His Son, he also chose each one of us. That knowledge should bring a deep sense of comfort to all Christians. As John Calvin said, “If, then, our faith were not grounded in God’s eternal election, it is certain that Satan might pluck it from us every minute.” So not only should we be comforted, but we can also be assured.
Election should also moderate our own sense of self, and place it more fully in Christ, than in our own accomplishments or self-worth. Consider that you are chosen not just before you are born, but before the universe has even taken shape, what have you accomplished that could have accounted for such grace. For grace it is, and grace is what Paul speaks about in verse 6, saying that our election and predestination in Christ are “to the praise of [God’s] glorious grace” – which is to say, God’s grace is representative of His glory, which in turn is deserving of praise. We should praise God for the grace He has shown us, for that grace is a reflection of His glory. R. Kent Hughes teaches that in our election “there can be no room for pride or imagined merit, but rather profound humility and thanksgiving.” We have done nothing to earn this election, nor could have – seeing as our world did not even exist. Even now, do we think, given this pre-eternity election, that we could somehow add merit and value to our election? Robert Rollock, the first regent and first principal of the University of Edinburgh, in his Commentary on Ephesians, says,
“We see that all the causes of our predestination are outside ourselves. First, there is God the Father, the efficient cause, then Christ who is the material cause, then the pleasure of God, which is the formal cause, and then the glory of God, which is the final cause.”
Peter T. O’Brien makes note of the fact “that election took place before creation indicates that God’s choice was due to his own free decision and love, which were not dependent on temporal circumstances or human merit.”
O’Brien also leads us into what should be our second response to our election, namely, praising God.
“The reasons for his election were rooted in the depths of his gracious, sovereign nature. To affirm this is to give to Christians the assurance that God’s purposes for them are of the highest good, and the appropriate response from those who are chosen in Christ from all eternity is to praise him who has so richly blessed us.”
Paul himself explains that we were chosen “to be holy and blameless in His sight”. Paul said the same thing to the Colossians: “But now He has reconciled you by His physical body through His death, to present you holy, faultless, and blameless before Him” (Colossians 1:22). Our purpose on Earth can sometimes feel muddled, but in the end, it is relatively simple: The Westminster Larger Catechism summed it up perfectly; “Man’s chief and highest end is to glorify God, and fully to enjoy him forever.” To the Romans, Paul added some of the most encouraging and praise-inducing words in the Bible;
“We know that all things work together for the good of those who love God: those who are called according to His purpose. For those He foreknew He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son, so that He would be the firstborn among many brothers. And those He predestined, He also called; and those He called, He also justified; and those He justified, He also glorified.” — Romans 8:28-30
Is it any wonder, then, that Paul is so insistent upon praising God? John Calvin wrote of these verses, “This is why God chose us—he wanted his grace to be exalted. Anyone who fails to do this is guilty of trying to overturn the everlasting purpose of God.”
Our entire lives as Christians should result in praise. In enumerating the “spiritual blessings in the heavens” that we have as Christians, Paul is unhurried in ensuring that we not only acknowledge the source and benefit of these blessings, but that we in turn praise God for them. Paul mentions the “praise of His glory” twice more in this epic sentence that opens Ephesians, over and over again reiterating the importance of our lives praising God.
As Israel existed as a beacon of Yahweh throughout history, so now we are beacons reflecting God’s glorious grace. We therefore must not only praise God with our words, but with our actions as well. In writing to the Romans, Paul explains:
“Therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, I urge you to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God; this is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this age, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may discern what is the good, pleasing, and perfect will of God.” —Romans 12:1-2
Paul explained that we were chosen “to be holy and blameless in His sight”. This has primarily a future meaning to it, when we are eventually presented before God. Later on in Ephesians, Paul explains that Jesus Christ “loved the church and gave Himself for” the church, “to make her holy” and “to present the church to Himself in splendour, without spot or wrinkle or anything like that, but holy and blameless.” (Ephesians 5:25-27) But there is also a current imperative, for God has not elected us so that we can do as we choose. John Stott explains that, while the passage likely “points to our final state of perfection … the process of sanctification begins in the here and now. So, far from encouraging sins, the doctrine of election forbids it and lays upon us instead the necessity of holiness.”
God did not choose us to praise Him in isolation – for that would be for our benefit alone. Rather, God wants us to praise Him in full view, living lives that reflect the grace and holiness and blamelessness that we have been elected to – this is our spiritual worship.
 Today In The Word, August, 1989, p. 35.
 http://www.ligonier.org/learn/articles/divine-incomprehensibility/, accessed 15/03/2016
 The Message of Ephesians, BST, John Stott, p. 37
 The Complete Works of C. H. Spurgeon, Volume 66: Autobiography Vol. 1, Chapter 16
 Maybe someday, down the track, we’ll tackle predestination in full
 Ephesians, James Montgomery Boice, p. 18-19
 http://jonimitchell.com/music/song.cfm?id=75, accessed 16/03/2016
 Stott, p. 36
 The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Ephesians ~ Philemon, eds. Tremper Longman III & David E. Garland, William W. Klein, p. 48
 A Theology of John’s Gospel and Letters, Andreas J. Köstenberger, p. 179
 Sermons on the Epistle to the Ephesians, John Calvin (1562; reprint, Carlisle, Pa.: Banner of Truth Trust, 1975), p. 31-32
 Ephesians: The Mystery of the Body of Christ, Preaching the Word, R. Kent Hughes, p. 25
 Reformation Commentary on Scripture, New Testament 10, Galations, Ephesians, ed. Gerald L. Bray, p. 244
 The Letter to the Ephesians, Pillar, Peter T. O’Brien, p. 100
 http://www.reformed.org/documents/wlc_w_proofs/, accessed 16/03/2016
 Commentary on Ephesians, John Calvin, (Reformation Commentary on Scripture, New Testament 10, Galations, Ephesians, ed. Gerald L. Bray) p. 245
 Stott, p. 38