Ephesians 1:3-6 Considered: Chosen and Destined

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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Genesis 6:5-8 and 8:20-22: Reflecting on Pre- and Post-Flood Humanity

Violence and evil are exponentially increasing.  The consequence of Adam and Eve’s disobedience is most evident in Cain’s murder of Abel.  This violent trend only escalates in Lamech’s killing of a young man.  If remarks: “If Cain is avenged seven times, Lamech will be avenged seventy-seven times.”  Something has gone entirely haywire in God’s good Creation.  In fact, Genesis 6:5-8 tells us that humanity’s wickedness “was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually.”  The Creation has become entropic!

This brings about a change of heart in God.  God looks upon their wickedness and at the way humanity violates God’s boundaries for Creation.  The order that God had ordained had been reduced to chaos.  As a result, God “repents” from having created humanity in the first place!  However, God’s regretting the creation of humanity is not limited to humanity.  Rather, God repents of having created everything.  Something about humanity’s disobedience has seeped into the larger created order!  Sin is communal and impacts everything!

Even in the midst of God’s repenting, something keeps God from acting to fully destroy everything.  Noah is said to have found favor in God’s eyes.  Of course, we know that God provides a space of salvation for Noah and his family and the animals as the waters of chaos collapse in upon themselves and destroy everything not in the Ark.

On the other side of the flood, Noah and his family emerge from the Ark and begin to makes sacrifices to God.  This offering pleased God, prompting God to covenant that the ground would no longer be cursed because of man, despite still having a heart that continually pondered evil from youth!  In other words, natural disasters (such as Hurricane Katrina) were not God’s judgment upon wicked humanity.  The Created order is still simply broken and does not always reflect the order that it was intended to reflect.  Likewise, God will not destroy “every living creature” because of humanity’s wickedness.

The condition of the human heart before and after the flood has not changed.  Despite this fact, God covenants (restricts God’s power) to act in certain ways in the future.  God will not destroy everything.  In other words, God is committed to God’s Creation, despite its broken state.  Rather, God will continue to act in ways that draws the Creation back to its intended purpose.  God will act in ways to save and restore the Creation back to its original “very good.”  God will continue to preserve, sustain, and bless life!

Even though nothing has fundamentally changed about humanity after the flood, God still allows humanity to live and impact the world.  God values human freedom and decisions, even when they are opposed to God.  God does not coerce or force humanity to “love” God or to obey God.  True love and obedience can only be an invitation to respond!  Thus, Noah’s sacrifice to God is pleasing because Noah is righteous, or in right relationship with God.  Noah has freely chosen to worship God as a loving response to the mercy of the Creator!

God is demonstrated in these passages to be a relational Being.  Despite the continuing wickedness of humanity, God still sees something valuable, something worth saving in them and in the larger Creation!  Our decisions, either for or against God have real consequences.  Our wicked inclinations are ever before us and unleash a world of torrent chaos.  We are in desperate need of God’s mercy and grace to save us.  Amazingly, God’s desire is to bless life and to restore that which has been broken.

Wesley and Calvin

I think Wesley answers this pretty clearly. For the greater part of his life, Wesley was vehemently opposed to Calvanism. This is the whole reason for the fallout between him and George Whitefield, who was a staunch proponent of Calvanism. “The Wesleys criticized the notions, so dear to Calvinists, of unconditional election, irresistible grace, and the final perseverance of the saints. Naturally, both pieces upset Whitefield, who responded to these publications over a period of a year and a half” (Maddox 52). However, Wesley and Calvin both start at the same point. Both assert the total depravity of humanity: “For all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” But, beyond that point, I do not believe Wesley and Calvin’s successors had much in common. Wesley’s view of God’s grace and election are very different from the Calvanist viewpoint of limited atonement and predestination.

“Wesley [in the sermon Free Grace] totally rejected predestination in all its Calvinist versions… Whitefield, an exciting preacher who was Wesley’s junior by ten years, took for granted that the doctrine of justification by faith stood or fell with the presupposition of irresistible grace… In 1765, Wesley claimed that on the point of justification, he had never differed ‘from [Mr. Calvin] a hair’s breadth’” (Outler 49). Wesley, especially in his later years, recanted against such harsh criticisms leveled at Calvinism. This was not done because he felt he was wrong about predestination, but because there had been a number of Calvanists that had shown to be good, faithful Christians. It would seem that Wesley’s anti-Calvinist bent is based upon perceived dangers of such a doctrine.

For instance, in his sermon Free Grace, Wesley writes, “This doctrine not only tends to destroy Christian holiness, happiness, and good works, but hath also a direct and manifest tendency to overthrow the whole Christian revelation” (54). In other words, it is inconsistent with the Scriptural witness to God’s nature and character. Furthermore, if we are to apply the hermeneutical circle, we could say that these, in Wesley’s mind at least, violated Reason, Scripture, and Experience. Free grace, rather than limited grace, reflected a loving God, consistent with Scriptures and consistent with his personal experience. How could a loving God seriously only predestine some to eternal salvation and others to eternal condemnation? “For it cannot be denied that he everywhere speaks as if he was willing that all men should be saved. Therefore, to say he was not willing that all men should be saved is to represent him as a mere hypocrite and dissembler” (56).

Wesleyanism and Calvinism may have some points of reference in which they are similar. However, the vast majority of their doctrine is in juxtaposition. Their view of God is very different and humanity’s role in salvation is very different. Both sides perceive different dangers in emphasizing one position over the other. For Wesley, Calvinism destroyed free will and proper response in the believer. For Calvinism, Wesleyan-Armenian thought compromised God’s power and work by overemphasizing the human component.