Recently, a friend asked me through email what I thought about the predestination and election language in Ephesians 1:3-14. Here are some of the ways I've been thinking about this issue:
One thing to keep in mind is that we don't talk about predestination and election simply because we enjoy engaging in theological debate or pondering philosophical questions. We talk about predestination because the bible talks about predestination. The words "elect" and "predestined" are biblical words that have been "breathed out" by God. As Christians, we should love these words.
In the first chapter of Ephesians, Paul begins his letter by glorying in God's saving work. Part of this glorious truth is the fact that God chose a people for himself. In v. 4, Paul says that God "chose us in [Christ] before the foundation of the world." In v. 5, he says that "in love" God "predestined us to adoption as sons through Jesus Christ." This was done "according to the kind intention of His will, to the praise of the glory of His grace." Through Christ, believers have obtained "an inheritance" because we were "predestined according to his purpose" (1:9). Paul then reminds his readers that this God who has done this is one "who works all things after the counsel of His will" (1:9). The goal of this entire plan is that God would be glorified in his people (1:6, 1:12, 1:14).
The first thing to recognize about this passage is that it is entirely God-centered. This passage contains one majestic thought (vv. 3-14 are one sentence in Greek). God has redeemed his people through Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit, all to the praise of his glory.
An undeniable reality that this passage presents is God's sovereignty in salvation. Paul reveals that believers are those who have been chosen by God "before the foundation of the world" and who have been predestined to adoption as sons "in love." Man is not the active agent here. God is the one who redeems his children through Christ as his "own possession" (1:14).
After recognizing this reality, the question naturally arises, "Does this mean that God chooses who will be saved? Does this mean that people have no free will to choose their ultimate eternal destiny?" The answer to this question is not easy for us to hear. The thought of God being sovereign in salvation impinges upon us and bruises our sense of justice.
However real this anxiety is, Paul does not address it here. There are many passages in the Bible that affirm human responsibility. It is clear that man must believe and respond to the gospel in faith in order to be saved. All men must answer the question, "But who do you say that I am?" (Mk 8:29). Our lives depend upon our answer. You must "confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead" to be saved (Rom 10:9). Scripture demands that we "come to Christ," and if we reject this calling, we are held responsible for our unbelief.
Though humans must repent and believe in order to be saved, in the prologue of Ephesians, Paul reveals that in the mind of God, his action is prior to ours. His will is more important than our will. It is only right to speak of God's free will. Even by nature of being creatures, our will is subordinate to his. He is ultimate, and we are dependent upon him. We were sinners, deserving nothing and rebelling against the purpose of the kingdom and wonder upon wonders, "he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world." This is an humbling thought. If being chosen boosts your ego, then you have not rightly understood it. In his mercy, God has freely chosen to save some of those who rebel against him. In love, he saved those who in their nature hated him.
There are many issues and passages involved in this discussion. There are places all over the Scriptures that teach God's sovereignty in salvation as well as man's responsibility to believe. As one wrestles with these realities, there are two starting points. You can either start with human responsibility and explain God's sovereignty by it, or you can start with God's sovereignty and understand human freedom by it.
Personally, the majesty of passages like Ephesians 1:3-14 compels me to understand human freedom through the lens of God's sovereignty in salvation. When my human thoughts tempt me to put my will on the level of God's, I must strive to take that thought captive in light of Paul's words.
When someone asks me if God chose me, I answer "yes." When someone asks me if I chose God, I answer "yes." This means I believe that I freely choose what God has eternally ordained. Human responsibility and God's sovereignty are compatible rather than irreconcilable.
Believers fall on both sides of this issue. Wrestle with these deep and searing truths. Think on them, and then think on them again.
Some truths were meant to be marveled at in worship rather than completely comprehended by the mind. For us, "predestination" and "election" are many times associated with heated debate and emotional controversy.
For Paul, God's choosing of his children was an occasion for worship. It was brought up for the sake of the "praise of his glory" rather than for the sake of argument.
It was something to stand in awe of.
- Similar thoughts (posts) on 2 Tim 2:10 (The passion of Paul) and Matt 11 (The delight and demand of Christ).
- A word from C.H. Spurgeon: "Friends don't need to be Reconciled."
- A helpful presentation by one of my professors on this topic, Greg Welty--Election and Calling Lecture (mp3).