Ephesians 1:3-6 Considered: Chosen and Destined

Posted: March 3, 2015 in Scripture, Theology and Faith
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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, just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love. He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, 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, just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love. He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, 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.

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Comments
  1. Gabriel says:

    Too many of man’s words in this article, not enough scripture. We can’t make scripture mean what we WANT IT to mean, we simply believe what it says. The scripture says “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” . . . . so then we can conclude it means HE CHOSE US BEFORE THE FOUNDATION OF THE WORLD. The “free will” camp as you put it (which by the way-no where in the bible does it say free will but multiple places it says predestination) tries to take scripture and write an article such as this and ignore what is right in front of us. Without going into everything you spoke about, God conclusively wants ALL THE GLORY. For God to receive the MOST glory it seems he would set up the GOSPEL, sacrifice his own son: Jesus’ beautiful/humble death, burial, and resurrection which was needed because of sin (scripture doesn’t clearly delineate did God create sin or not so we leave it at that) and he would CHOOSE, like it says, some for honor and some for dishonor. Romans 9 is hard to swallow but it says this: “when Rebekah had conceived children by one man, our forefather Isaac, though THEY WERE NOT YET BORN and HAD DONE NOTHING GOOD OR BAD–IN ORDER THAT GOD’S PURPOSE OF ELECTION MIGHT CONTINUE, NOT BECAUSE OF WORKS BUT BECAUSE OF HIM WHO CALLS–SHE WAS TOLD THE OLDER WILL SERVE THE YOUNGER. As it is written, Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.” So we give God the most glory that he even looks at us as sinners and gives us grace/love/mercy and chooses for us to be holy and blameless before him in love!

    • Levi Jones says:

      Gabriel, I appreciate your response. I think we’ll have to agree that we have different interpretations of this passage. There are a few things that I will point out for clarity. Even in the “free will” scenario, God receives all the glory. God’s grace allows us to respond and to choose the good. Without it, we are unable to do so. As such, God receives all glory. And, just as you mentioned passages where God “knows” about election, there are also passages that seem to hold that God does not know a future event’s outcome. Abraham goes to sacrifice Isaac and just before the deed is done, God says, “Now I know.” In bringing the animals before Adam, God waits to see what Adam would name them. The idea of free will, in some degree, can be found within Scripture. Again, the central issue is the manner in which God uses power. And, in fact, Scripture actually does say that God DID NOT create sin (the Epistle of James). It’s a very important point, from a Christian perspective, to affirm that God is in no way responsible for sin and evil. Humanity is responsible for these things. There’s the rub with predestination. If God chooses for some to sin and be condemned, then God authored their sin, for they had no way of choosing otherwise. Again, thank you for your response, but I think we just understand God’s character and nature very differently.

    • Levi Jones says:

      I’ll also assume by “too many of man’s words” that you mean I included too much of my own thought in interpreting this passage. I won’t deny that I used a particular interpretive framework, namely Wesleyan-Arminian. However, I think you should also be aware that you are using your own interpretive framework which has been handed down to you from people (“words of men”). Reading Scripture is an interpretive act, as you have demonstrated. You use Romans 9 but leave out other significant texts (not to say you’re wrong). That is an interpretive act from a particular tradition of interpretation.

  2. Sylvia says:

    really good post with with great thoughts and points. the one thing that continues to stump me, though, is that if God “destined (us) for adoption” through Christ” before creation, wouldn’t that imply he knew adam & eve would “fail” (sin) and the Jews would likewise “fail”? i can’t come up with a good understanding of where free will fits in if God knew we would be in need of Christ before creation existed. And, I am of the “free will camp”, but like to know the weaknesses in my own positions. any thoughts on the above? thanks for an enlightening post!

    • Levi Jones says:

      Thanks, Sylvia. St. Irenaeus has been helpful to me on this point. Irenaeus says that the Incarnation has always been God’s plan. Even if the Fall had never happened, Irenaeus says that the plan had always been that God would dwell in and with the Creation through Incarnation. The Fall, for him, speeds up the move to Incarnation.

  3. Gabriel says:

    Levi and Sylvia,
    Thanks for the comments, very informative and I apologize as I re-read what I wrote and sounded like a jerk via “typing’ and I ask for your forgiveness for that! First off, I grew up my entire life ‘free willing” it and through the Holy Spirit’s sanctification am learning new things I never knew existed in the Bible such as this passage Levi is referring to. Also, my dearest family and friends are of the free will camp and just know I would join hand in hand with you all as brothers and sisters in Christ as we have a foundation together of Christ and the Gospel.

    The big question “did God ordain the fall?’ is a very tough one, especially from a predestination point of view. We only have the facts of the Bible. From 1 Peter 1 also it states Jesus was chosen before the foundation of the world. SO if WE were chosen before creation (Eph 1), and JESUS was chosen before creation then God knew Adam and Eve would commit the original sin. We see Genesis 3 tell us the story of the “crafty” serpent deceiving Eve, and who is there the very first verses after the sin? God is there and knows just what to ask, if they ate of the tree he commanded them not to.

    So from Levi and the book of James we can learn that God does NOT cause people to sin. but Adam and Eve listened to the serpent-devil and sinned. Because of that sin we need a Savior.

    Weakness in the free will point of view I have realized is mainly with salvation. I feel someone who is DEAD in sin (Eph. 2), does not just “ding” get a light-bulb and freely CHOOSE God one day . . .

    4 But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, 5 even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— 6 and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, 7 so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. 8 For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, 9 not a result of works, so that no one may boast. 10 For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.

    Gabriel

    • Levi Jones says:

      Gabriel, your final comment is correct. We do not “ding” just choose God. Those that ascribe to free will understand that God is working to woo us even before we can decide to choose God. God loves us first before we are able to love Him. So, a proper understanding of free will is rooted in God’s grace awakening us to the need for Him and empowering us to choose Him. So, free will is not about our earning salvation, but responding to the grace God has given us. The distinction is that God calls for response. He does not coerce a response from us. Thus, that is the meaning of free will in a properly Christian sense. As to your previous post, I took no offense. I don’t mind spirited debate. It just shows that you are passionate about this topic, which is not a bad thing. All is forgiven. 🙂

    • Sylvia says:

      gabriel… i enjoy your comments. personally, i think the “facts of the Bible” still leave us human uncertain of certain things in either “camp”. there always seems to be weaknesses in either position or “camp”. most likely because we see and interpret things through human minds, and not God’s. i’m sure one day when we’ve left this world, it’ll all make sense. i think levi gave a nice response to the belief that if God “knew us” and “knew Christ” before creation, then that means God predestined the fall. it had never occurred to me that perhaps God intended to send Christ to us regardless… but, what purpose He was to serve was not yet known.

      • Gabriel says:

        So you (Irenaeus) are saying God was going to have Jesus come to earth no matter what, it just so happened there are sinners that needed a savior when he got there?

      • Levi Jones says:

        It seems that God’s intent was always to dwell in and with the Creation. The Incarnation, according to Irenaeus, was planned from the beginning. The “Fall” expedited that movement of God toward the Creation.

  4. Sylvia says:

    gabriel… that’s what i gathered. and, scripture doesn’t rule that out. i don’t find it far fetched that God would want to send his son to rein with and celebrate with his creation had sin not entered the world. to me, that is much easier to make sense of than the predeterministic notion that God predestined us to sin before creation. to use the words of c. s. lewis, God would be nothing more than a “cosmic sadist” if that were the case. and, it makes no sense that individuals could be held accountable for their actions if those very actions were determined for them.

  5. Gabriel says:

    Yeah I guess Romans 9 is what makes me not agree with C.S. Lewis in calling God a “cosmic sadist.” This chapter is speaking to exactly what we are questioning, God’s level of Sovereignty . . .

    14What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means! 15For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” 16So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy. 17For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, “For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” 18So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills.

    19You will say to me then, “Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?” 20But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, “Why have you made me like this?” 21Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use? 22What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, 23in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory— 24even us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles?

    It seems Esau and Pharoah’s actions were predetermined by God. And even Esau before he was born it says God hated. And Hebrews 12 Esau even found no chance to repent, even with tears and it wasn’t granted to him.

    Hebrews 12:7 For you know that afterward, when he (Esau) desired to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no chance to repent, though he sought it with tears.

    I definitely had never thought that before about the Incarnation so thanks Levi and Sylvia. Any scripture reference with that?

    Gabriel

    • Levi Jones says:

      I’d have to go back and look to see if Irenaeus had a particular passage in mind or if he is operating out of the whole narrative of scripture as a foundation for that thought.

      In reference to Romans 9, I still see it as there being a level of freedom in the creature to choose. If there is no will from which the creature can operate, then there is no other actual will in a creature. Only God’s will, which would necessarily collapse God and the Creation together. Scripture points out that God is wholly Other than the Creation. Now, I’m not saying that there is absolute freedom for the creature. But, there is a cooperation of God and creature. Love is not a possibility if there is no capacity for a free response. That is C. S. Lewis’ point, and rightfully so. Even something that we might call God’s wrath is framed in relational terms (i.e., love).

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