Here’s the text from Ephesians 1:3-6:
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, 4 just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love. 5 He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, 6 to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved.
This text is a contentious battleground for many within Christian circles. The tension revolves around the issue of predestination and free will. More than that, it’s about the way God uses power. Or, to say it another way, what kind of power is it that God wields?
The predestination camp, if I can call it that, argument goes something like this. Even before God created the heavens and the earth (i.e., “the foundation of the world”), God ordained/predestined those who would be saved and those that would not. In other words, God’s grace is reserved for those that He has chosen to save. The others are just clay vessels made for destruction. The whole idea revolves around God’s power – omniscience, omnipotence, and omnipresence. This scenario posits that if God has predestined something, and God knows the future, and God cannot lie, then it would seem that the creature really has no say in whether or not they receive God’s grace. Of course, there are more nuanced arguments from this camp, but I’m wrestling with this basic tenet: God predestines some for salvation
Here’s a basic problem with this idea. If God chooses those He would save before there is sin (i.e., “before the foundations of the world”), then sin is actually a creation of God. If God is all-powerful, why didn’t God’s predestination work prior to sin with Adam and Eve? If it didn’t work, does that mean, since we don’t have free will in this scenario, that God wills us to sin? And, if God wills us to sin, then isn’t God the Creator of sin? If God creates sin then sin is actually good and to be lauded.
However, this is not the scriptural testimony. Scripture tells us that God is good and abhors sin. Sin is not something God has created. Rather, to quote C. S. Lewis, sin is the absence of the good, even as darkness is the absence of light. It is not something that exists, per se. But, sin is known by that which is absent, namely God’s goodness. For God to choose for some to choose sin (that which is not God) would be for God to choose that which is not God as well. In so many ways, this violates God’s simplicity – which is to say that God will not choose something that contradicts God’s character and nature, holy love.
Free will helps us navigate this issue. I’m aware of issues with free will, but the concept as a whole helps us comprehend this text in a more holistic light. First, predestination can be seen as God’s love-infused hope for His Creation. This was the purpose from the beginning, the Creation would “holy and blameless before Him in love.” I now have a young daughter. My hope for her is that she will grow up to live this out as well. Everything that I do for her is to aid in this development. But, it could be the case that she rejects my hopes for her and wanders toward other things. If our relationships naturally give space for free will, then it would seem odd that we have no free will. And, indeed, it would suggest that God has created a deceptive world (another theological problem!).
The issue is one of power for those in the free will camp, just like the predestination camp. The biggest distinction is the manner in which God uses such power. For the predestination camp, it is about power that maintains God’s holiness as distinct separation from the Creation. For the free will camp, God’s power is manifested as holy love, which allows the creature to freely accept or reject God’s love. (True love requires response, which can easily be rejected. If there is inability to respond, then it is not love.)
The question that is appropriate to ask at this point is whether or not we believe God set the Creation up for failure. Or, perhaps, the Creation (via humanity) rejected God’s love. Yet, in God’s love God did not give up on the Creation but sought to redeem it. St. Irenaeus of Lyon has a beautiful way of summarizing this picture. God in Christ Jesus became everything that we are so that through Christ Jesus we might become everything that God is by His very nature. Or, to put it in the words of Ephesians: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, 4 just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love. 5 He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, 6 to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved.”
An insightful lecture on the issues surrounding God’s will trumping human will is given by Eleonore Stump at the Los Angeles Theology Conference: http://latheology.com/past-years/2015locating-atonement/2015videos. The lecture reflects on atonement and Eucharist. Some of her framework is enlightening for thinking through this issue of free will.