Even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should e holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will …
In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will …
In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory.
The first chapter of Ephesians clearly teaches that certain individuals are predestined to eternal life. It further tells us that those who have been predestined are guaranteed that they cannot fall away. Unconditional Election and Perseverance of the Saints are firmly established by this passage.
(Ephesians 1:4-5, 11)
We have already considered the corporate nature of this passage in the post entitled, “5 Questions about Predestination – Who?” We noted that it was not individuals who were the focus of God’s election and predestination, but the Body of Christ. Individuals certainly benefit from the election of the Church and the plans that God has predestined for it, but only as long as they remain connected with Christ through faith. We illustrated this by noting the similarities between God’s election of Israel “in Abraham” and his election of the Church “in Christ.” Without legitimate connection to Abraham one could not consider himself a member of Abraham’s people; and without a genuine connection to Jesus one cannot declare himself a member of God’s elect and holy Church.
In that post we focused on the teachings that can be drawn from particular verses in the first chapter of Ephesians. But here we want to look at the chapter in its actual context. Only by considering a passage in light of its immediate context can we hope to correctly draw teachings from it. In this case, that means we must take a look at Paul’s letter to the Ephesians.
Paul is an apostle with a shepherd’s heart and a teachers mind. As an apostle, everything he teaches is written for the intention of building up the Body of Christ in general, and local congregations in particular. He doesn’t teach about topics merely because they interest his intellect, but he is always guided by the need of his listeners. Even when touching on deep issues like divine election and eternal predestination, we can be sure that he is bringing up such topics for a practical and edifying purpose. He is a teacher that is guided by a shepherd’s loving heart and an apostle’s clear purpose. So to understand Ephesians we must start by asking a very important question, “Why is Paul writing about the election of the Church and God’s predestined plan for it?”
Not only is the letter written to a corporate body, it is written to a church that consists of primarily of Gentiles. So many Gentiles were being converted in Ephesus during Paul’s original ministry that those who sold idols were angry that their business was declining. In Acts 17:23-41 we read that these enraged “business men” started a citywide riot! Knowing that most of the Ephesian congregation was non-Jewish, we can be sure that that the Jewish/Gentile controversy of the early church was not far from Paul’s mind as he wrote. This is clearly confirmed when we get to chapter 2, “Therefore remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh, called ‘the uncircumcision’ by what is called the circumcision, which is made in the flesh by hands ….” (vs. 11) He continues to teach that the Gentile Christians are fully included in the promises of God until the end of chapter 3. Then he concludes this section by talking about God’s plan for bringing the unified Body of Christ to full maturity in chapter 4, verses 1-16. Only then does Paul begin applying the truths already discussed to the daily lives of the individual members of the Church. The rest of the letter consists of these practical instructions and warnings about living holy lives and relating with one another.
So how does eternal predestination relate to Gentile membership in the Body of Christ? In order to understand this we must understand that Paul’s main focus in the Ephesian epistle is “the eternal purpose that he [i.e. God] has realized in Christ Jesus our Lord” (3:11).
The first thing we notice about the purpose of God is that it is eternal. God did not come up with his goal for the history of the world some time after putting the stars in place. His plan was predestined long before that.
When we take time to pay attention to the first 14 verses of the letter to the Ephesians we will notice that Paul uses the phrase “in Christ,” or similar phrases like “through Christ” and “in the Beloved,” 10 times when referring to God’s eternal purpose. He continues to use related phrases throughout the rest of the epistle. The plan of God was always centered primarily on Jesus Christ, and only after applying it to him can we apply it to the Church that is “in him.”
Ephesians 1:9-10 confirms that Christ is the center of the plan, but it also tells us the timing and scope of this plan. It was “set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.” We read in Galatians 4:4, “When the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son … that we might receive adoption as sons.” The plan of God was “realized” with the coming of Christ into the world. After his resurrection Jesus declared, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” (Matt. 28:18). Colossians 1:16-17 makes the scope of God’s plan in Christ even clearer, “For in him all things were created; things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (NIV). God’s eternal purpose was to bring his Son into the world and give him authority over everything in heaven and on earth.
Not only does God tell us through Paul what the scope of his eternal purpose is, but in Ephesians chapter 1 he also declares what benefits the Body of Christ receives according to this plan. In him we have been given “every spiritual blessing” (vs. 3). What kinds of blessings? He predestined us “for adoption as sons,” for the “forgiveness of our trespasses,” and for the receiving of “wisdom and insight” into “the mystery of his will” (vs. 5, 7, and 8-9). This was all “according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ” (vs. 9).
This leads us to the question that Paul is answering in the book of Ephesians, “Who did God predestine to be in the Body of Christ and partake of its blessings?” Reformed Theology gives this answer, “Every individual that God chose before the world began. Those individuals that God predetermined would believe in Jesus.” But consider this answer in light of Paul’s teaching in Ephesians chapter 1. Paul emphasizes that we were “chosen in Christ.” To be chosen as an individual means that God chose people personally, not because they met the condition of joining themselves to Christ. Calvinism asserts that each elect individual was “chosen in his own person.” To be chosen in Christ means people were not chosen in their own person but according to how they align and connect themselves to Christ. Those who join themselves to Christ by faith are God’s predestined people. God did not choose which individuals would be joined to Christ; he chose to accept all people who meet the condition of accepting Christ as his own special possession (John 1:11-13).
If we ignore Paul’s teaching about our election being founded on our connection to Christ, as well as the scriptural, cultural and historical context of Ephesians chapter 1, we could use this passage to defend Calvinism’s theory of individual election by divine decree. But if we put these verses in the context of the entire epistle to the Ephesians, including its cultural and historical background, this interpretation is shown to be completely indefensible.
Calvinism often defends charges against making God into an arbitrary judge who chooses who will go to heaven and who will go to hell on a whim, by saying that he “works all things according to the counsel of his will” (Eph. 1:11). Reformed Theologians would say that even though God does not make his decision about who will be saved according to any principle that we know of, he doesn’t make a random selection. When pressed to give an answer for how God makes an unconditional choice that is not random or arbitrary, the answer given goes something like this, “God has not revealed this to us; it is a mystery.” This answer, or anything like it, contradicts the Bible. It ignores the fact that God has made “known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose” (Eph. 1:9). Calvinism says we can’t know God’s mysterious will that controls the destinies of men, but Paul proclaims that one of God’s predestined purposes in Christ was to reveal his will to the Church, with all “wisdom and insight” (Eph 1:8).
So, we still must answer the question, “Who did God predestine to be in the Body of Christ and partake of its blessings?” In Chapter 3 Paul tells the Ephesians, “The mystery was made known to me by revelation” (vs. 3). He goes on to say that the “mystery of Christ” was “not made known to the sons of men in other generations as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit” (vs. 4-5). So what is the “mystery of Christ”? Paul gives us a clear answer, “This mystery is that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel” (vs. 6). Wow! Not only does Paul tell us that the predestined plan of God was to include both Jews and Gentiles in the Church of Christ, but he even tells us the condition on which they receive the predestined promises of God. He tells us that we “partake of the promise through the gospel.” The mystery that was hidden, and has now been revealed, is that “God would justify the Gentiles by faith” (Gal. 3:8).
Ephesians chapter 2 tells us more about this predestined plan. In the Old Testament Gentiles were “alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world” (v. 12). But God had a plan that no one knew about. He predestined that those “who were once far off” would be “brought near by the blood of Christ” (vs. 13). His plan was to remove the division between Jew and Gentile and create in Christ “one new man in place of the two, so making peace” (vs. 15). When Christ came he proclaimed peace to the Gentiles “who were far off” and peace to the Jews “who were near” (vs. 17). Now, under the New Covenant both Jews and Gentiles “have access in one Spirit to the Father” through Jesus Christ (vs. 18). Gentiles are “no longer strangers and aliens” but “fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord” (vs. 19-21).
God’s eternal purpose for the Church in Christ was not to unconditionally save certain preselected individuals, but to save both Jews and Gentiles who trusted in the Gospel. This is why John 3:16 was one of the most radical statements of in the Bible. Not only was the radical love of God revealed by the giving of his Son, but this love was directed to “the world,” not merely the Jewish nation. This was completely unexpected by the nation that had long been waiting for their Messiah to come and deliver them. It was dramatic enough that the Son of God had been “slain from the creation of the world” (Rev. 13:8 – NIV). But the fact that he was slain to “ransom people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation” was just too hard to believe. This was “the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things” (Eph. 3:9).
With this context in mind we can understand why Paul starts off his letter with the topic of eternal predestination. It was clear to all that God had chosen the nation of Israel as his special people. So when the Gospel came along and started including Gentiles as well, people began to say, “Hey, you can’t just change the way God does things.” Some of the Jewish Christians began to say, “If these Gentiles want to be part of God’s people they have to become Jews, after all, the nation of Israel was chosen first.” What was Paul’s response to this claim? He responded by saying that the eternal plan of God was to create a people in Christ that consisted of both Jews and Gentiles. The Church was chosen in Christ before the world was created. After creation God chose the people of Israel in order to bring his Son into the world “in the fullness of time.” By bringing the Savior into the world the nation of Israel would become a “blessing to all nations.” Israel was chosen for the purpose of fulfilling his eternal purpose. But the Church was primary; because they were God’s eternally chosen people.
The Gentile church in general and the Ephesians in particular, had no need to feel like second class citizens in God’s kingdom. They were not an afterthought. It had always been God’s primary purpose to build the multi-ethnic Body of Christ. Paul said about the early Jewish Christians, “In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will, so that we who were the first to hope in Christ might be to the praise of his glory” (Eph. 1:11-12). But then in order to make it crystal clear that the Gospel was not only for Jews, he tells the Gentile Ephesians, “In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit” (Eph. 1:13).
Paul didn’t start the letter to the Ephesians talking randomly about predestination and then suddenly change the topic to the Gentiles’ role in the Body of Christ. He didn’t get off on tangents when communicating with the Ephesian congregation. He starts off by talking about predestination because it is essentially related to relationship between the Jews and Gentiles in the Church. His plan to unite “all nations” under the authority of Christ was not his plan B, it was his eternal purpose. Though the election of Israel had come first in history, the election of the Church happened “before the foundation of the world.” Calvinism’s misinterpretation of Ephesians chapter 1 can only be defended when we ignore the message of the entire letter.