We have begun to look at Paul’s extended doxology over the blessings that God has given to us in Christ. In verse 3, he summarizes these blessings as “spiritual blessings in heavenly places in Christ.” That’s the summary. Now, he begins to spell out in verses 4-14 what these blessings are. We’ve noted that this passage divides naturally into three subsections in which Paul praises the Father for electing (4-6), the Son for redeeming (7-12) and the Spirit for sealing (13-14).
In verses 4-6, the apostle Paul praises God the Father for electing the saints and predestinating them to the adoption of children. In doing so, he is not only beginning to explain what the spiritual blessings are, he is also giving us their basis and foundation. Notice the words, “according as.” Paul is answering the question: How do these blessings come to us? How is it that men who are fallen and in rebellion against God, who are hostile towards God and his word, can come to love God? Paul explains: “According as he hath chosen us in him before the foundation of the world.” The basis for our salvation is God’s choosing us. In other words, we are saved because God the Father has elected us.
There is therefore no doubt that this text teaches the doctrine of election. The question is not if the Scriptures teach this doctrine; the question is what the Scriptures have to say about it. This doctrine, however, has been a source of unending controversy in the Christian church. This is unfortunate because the reason God has revealed this to us is so that we would join the apostle in praising God for his incredible grace. It is not meant to provoke controversy but to inspire exultation in God. For that reason, I think that before we even approach the teaching of this text, we need to put the teaching of this text in some perspective.
The first thing that needs to be pointed out is where the doctrine of election lies in order of importance relative to other doctrines. On one level, it should be obvious to every believer that it is important, because otherwise the Holy Spirit would not have inspired the apostle to write it down. “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable…” (2 Tim. 3:16). Nevertheless, we all recognize that there are different levels of importance when it comes to the Biblical doctrines. There are what might be called three tiers, or levels, of doctrines. The first level of doctrines, or primary truths, are those truths in Scripture which enable us to distinguish between Christian and non-Christian. Though this is not a very popular concept among even Christians of our day, the fact of the matter is that there are things you must believe in order to be rightfully called a Christian. For example, if you deny the Trinity, the deity of Christ, or the necessity of the atonement in order to be saved, you cannot be a Christian. This is the first level.
The second level of doctrines are those truths which enable us to distinguish among denominational commitments. There are certain truths that are important enough that it is worth putting some denominational distance between you and other Christians over them. For example, the baptism of believers by immersion is something that Baptists believe is important enough to make an identifying mark of their churches. And thus, to become a member of a Baptist church, you must be willing to identify yourself with the belief that the proper objects of baptism are believers and the proper mode of baptism is immersion. In doing so, they are not denying that people in other denominations are not Christian. They are just saying that this doctrine is important enough that even though they will not deny others who differ with them on this issue the title of Christian, they are willing to deny them affiliation in their denomination.
And there is a need for such denominational commitments and distinctions. Let us stick with the example of baptism to illustrate. John Bunyan was a Baptist; however, he didn’t feel that this issue of believer’s baptism should be a matter of fellowship. As a consequence, he would allow those who differed with him on this issue to be a member of his church. The problem is that eventually, this church ceased to be a Baptist church; that is, it stopped affirming the importance of this doctrine as a church. Now whether or not you agree or disagree with Bunyan on this issue, the point is that denominational distinctives are necessary to defend and perpetuate certain Biblical truths that are not agreed upon by all Christians. Once you stop affirming a truth to be a distinctive of your church, you have essentially given up that doctrine as an identifying mark of your church.
But there is a third tier. At this level are differences of opinion over issues that are the result of nothing more than different levels of maturity among believers. However, such differences of opinion need not necessitate separating into different denominations or churches. In fact, every healthy church will have a variety of opinions on certain topics that are neither first or second level truths. The apostle gives an example of this in his letter to the Romans in the fourteenth chapter. There were those who had fully grasped the implications of the gospel and no longer celebrated the Jewish holy days or observed the food laws of the Mosaic Law. On the other hand, there were other believers who still felt it necessary to practice these rites. However, Paul does not tell them to separate into different churches; he tells them to forbear with each other and not to put a stumbling-block in the way of other believers over these matters.
Now the point of all this is just to say the following: the doctrine of election is not a first-tier truth. Whether it should be second or third I will leave aside for the time; however, it is important to note that good Christians have disagreed over this doctrine for centuries. A great example of this is found in the lives of John Wesley and George Whitefield, who were contemporaries. Whitefield was a Calvinist and Wesley an Arminian, and in fact there was for a time a rupture in their friendship over this very doctrine. Nevertheless, they were reconciled and Wesley even preached Whitefield’s funeral. Both were good men; both were greatly used by God to bring many into the fold of faith during the Great Awakening. Nevertheless, they never came to an agreement over the doctrine of election. It is therefore repugnant to me to hear some argue that if you don’t believe in the doctrine of election from a certain point of view, you are not a Christian.
It is not Biblical to think and feel this way. When Paul wrote to the Romans, it appears that there were some in that church who disagreed with him on this very doctrine. And yet he never tells them to jump ship; he never tells them that they were not Christians. In the same way, as we approach this doctrine, I want to make it very clear that though I believe very strongly that the Calvinistic approach to the doctrine is the correct one, nevertheless, we ought to gladly affirm that there is room for disagreement (hopefully loving) here among Christians.
I mentioned Calvinism, which brings me to a second preliminary point. Unfortunately, names get associated with ideas and people begin to think that such an idea originated with the name. People talk about Western or Aristotelian logic as if Aristotle dreamed up the laws of logic. He didn’t – logic is logic, whether you live in the East or the West. The laws of logic didn’t originate with Aristotle, although he did such a good job clearly delineating them that his name has been associated with logic ever since. In the same way, what are called the doctrines of grace are often associated with Calvin’s name. And it is true that the way I understand the doctrine of election lines up with how John Calvin taught the doctrine. However, it is simply a mistake to infer that Calvin dreamed up this particular approach to the doctrine of election. The fact of the matter is that almost all the Reformers both before and after Calvin embraced the sovereignty of God in salvation. This is why Calvinism and Reformed theology are more or less synonymous.
However, it would also be a mistake to infer from this that Reformed theology originated with Martin Luther or Martin Bucer or Ulrich Zwingli or any of the other first generation reformers. It didn’t. The fact of the matter is that Reformed theology predates the Reformation by a lot. I would argue that it predates it all the way back to the apostle Paul. The fact of the matter is that in the history of the church, there are many examples of theologians who embraced what is now called Calvinism long before Calvin was even born. For example, John Wycliffe, who is often called the Morning Star of the Reformation, embraced the sovereignty of God in salvation and a Reformed understanding of the doctrine of election about a hundred and fifty years before Luther nailed his 95 Theses on the Church door at Wittenberg.
But it goes back even further. The greatest theologian between the apostles and the Reformers was Augustine, the fourth/fifth century bishop. Although I would disagree with a lot of what he had to say about the doctrine of the church, I would agree with almost everything he had to say about the doctrine of salvation. He was “Reformed” a thousand years before the Reformation.
The point I’m trying to make is that we do the doctrine of God’s sovereignty in salvation a disservice when we associate it with the name of John Calvin. Now the exposition I’m going to give may be in line with Calvin’s understanding, but it didn’t originate with him. And with all this being said, I’m going to drop Calvin’s name from this point on. The question I want to pursue with you this morning is not, “What did Calvin say?” but, “What does the Bible say?” My goal this morning is to do an inductive study with you of the Biblical doctrine of election, and for us to see what the Bible has to say about it.
We begin of course with our text: “According as he hath chosen us before the foundation of the world that we should be holy and without blame before him in love; having predestinated us unto the adoption of children by Jesus Christ unto himself according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of the glory of his grace, wherein he hath made us accepted in the beloved.” What does the apostle say about the doctrine of election here? He says at least five things. First, he says that the one who chooses is God the Father, the subject in verse three being the subject of verse four. Second, the objects of God’s election are “us,” which points back to verse 1 and to the saints and faithful in Christ Jesus. Third, the way God chose the saints was “in him,” in Christ. Fourth, the timing of God’s election was “before the foundation of the world.” Finally, the purpose for which they were chosen was that they should be “holy and without blame before him in love.”
Now there are basically two ways that this text has been interpreted. One viewpoint says that God’s choice of particular people was based on their foreseen faith. God choose one person over another because he foresaw that they would believe in Christ and turn from their sins. Another variation of this is that God did not choose particular people but choose to save a certain type of person, i.e. those who would put their faith in Christ. The other viewpoint is that God’s election is completely unconditional, and that faith or any other spiritual good thing in us the result and not the basis of God’s choice. So, the question is, Is God’s choice of one person over another conditioned on foreseen faith or is it not; is it conditional or unconditional?
There are several reasons to think that the election that Paul is describing here is unconditional. The first reason lies in the way verse 4 connects with verse 3. As we noted before, Paul is not only describing our spiritual blessings in verses 4 but by opening with “according as,” he is denoting that the foundation of these blessing lies in the action of God described in verse 4. That action is election. Election is therefore the basis for every spiritual blessing. Certainly, faith and its fruits would seem to be included in “spiritual blessings.” But if that’s the case, then faith is the fruit of election and not the cause of it.
But this is not the only evidence for unconditional election in this text. Here I think the phrase “that we should be holy and without blame before him in love” is decisive. Note that God did not choose anyone because he foresaw that they would be holy – he chose them in order that they might be holy. Holiness is the purpose, not the cause, of God’s election. Since the purpose of election is to create holy and blameless people, this also indicates that holiness is the result of election. Now, some might reply that they do not claim that holiness is the ground but that faith is the ground of election. However, faith is the fountain of holiness. What is the victory that overcomes the world? It is our faith (1 Jn. 5:4-5). The faith that saves is holy faith, and so if faith is the ground of our election, then election is unnecessary for our holiness.
Note further that Paul explains that the holiness and blamelessness to which we are chosen is holiness which is defined by love: “holy and blameless before him in love.” Some think that “in love” defines the way God predestined us, but I think the KJV has it right when it puts it at the end of verse 4 because in this doxology this type of phrase usually follows the main verb rather than precedes it. “In love” therefore explains how holiness and blamelessness are exercised. This makes sense because love is the fulfillment of the law, and all of holiness is summed up in the commandment to love. Of course, it is not just love to other people, but love to God that is the preeminent quality of Biblical love. But again, you cannot separate faith in Christ from love to God. They go together. You are never going to put your faith and trust in Christ as long as you are hostile to him. So how can love be the purpose for which we are chosen when it is produced by the faith which is supposed to be the basis of election? That would be to get the cart before the horse.
Now, I suppose that someone could make the argument that even though holiness is produced by faith, that doesn’t mean that faith is the same thing as holiness. After all, we are justified by faith and not by good works (holiness). So it could be argued that God could have chosen us on the basis of foreseen faith and for the purpose of future holiness (so that faith logically precedes God’s election and good works logically follow it). However, this argument doesn’t work. To foresee faith is to foresee holiness since one produces another. They both relate to God’s foresight in the same way. If one is the basis of God’s choice, why is the other not? Again, if holiness is the effect of election, then it stands to reason that faith must be as well.
But there is another reason why we shouldn’t see faith as the basis of God’s election of his people. In the next chapter, Paul explicitly says that faith is the gift of God: “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God” (2:8). What is the gift of God? It is salvation through faith. All of salvation, including the faith that apprehends the gift of Christ, is the gift of God. If faith is the gift of God, how then can it be the basis of election?
Now if faith were in fact the basis for God’s choice of his people, Paul could have made this explicit. He could have said that God chose us because of our faith and love. But he doesn’t. He doesn’t even mention our faith until verses 12 and 13. And it seems that he doesn’t because he wants us to see that salvation is all of God, from first to last. He wants you to see that the foundation beneath your hope does not lie in yourself but in the everlasting and faithful God. And he wants you to exult in that.
Paul goes on to say that those whom God chose he also “predestinated . . . unto the adoption of children by Jesus Christ unto himself, according to the good pleasure of his will” (5). Election and predestination are very closely tied together. God chose people, whom he predestines to belong to his family. This is the crowning blessing in all of salvation. To become the children of God through Christ is to come into the closest possible relationship to God. It is what caused the apostle John to exclaim, “Behold what manner of love the Father hath bestowed upon us that we should be called the children of God!” (1 Jn. 3:1). Paul expands upon this in his letter to the Romans when he writes that “the Spirit itself beareth witness with our spirit, that we are the children of God: and if children, then heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ” (Rom. 8:16-17). Thus, verse five explains verses 11 and 14.
But notice that the apostle goes on to tell us how God did this: “according to the good pleasure of his will.” Again, when the apostle wants us to know what moved God to do this, he doesn’t point to anything that you or I have done. He doesn’t point to foreseen faith and any good work as the reason for which God put us in his family. Rather, he points to the good purpose and pleasure of God’s sovereign will. What is the reason you are in the family of God and another person isn’t? Paul answers that question by pointing, not to us, but to God. It is God’s choice and God’s purpose and pleasure that lies at the bottom of your salvation. He is therefore the rightful object of your worship and praise and thanksgiving. You owe your salvation, not to your own cleverness or goodness, but to the sovereign initiative and grace of God.
God has done this “to the praise of the glory of his grace, wherein hath made us accepted in the beloved” (6). The display of the glory of God is the ultimate reason why God does what he does. As believers, we all recognize that God is the one who gets the praise for our salvation. We instinctively recognize that God is the one who makes us accepted. The emphasis of this entire passage is on the sovereignty of God in our salvation. God chose us to be holy, not because we were holy. God predestined us to become his children according to the good pleasure of his will, not because of the good pleasure of our will. God made us accepted in the beloved [in Christ]; his acceptance of us is the basis of our acceptance of him and not vice versa. In other words, God’s election of his people is entirely gracious and unconditional. Your eternal destiny does not ultimately depend upon your fickle will but upon God’s unchanging purpose.
So it certainly looks like Ephesians 1:4-6 is consistent with the teaching that election is unconditional. But is this corroborated by the rest of the NT? Or are we reading into this text ideas which are foreign to the words of our Lord and the other apostles and the other writings of Paul? Let’s consider other passages in the NT where this idea occurs.
First of all, consider the words of our Lord in John 6:37-45. Twice in this passage, our Lord refers to those whom the Father has given to him (37, 39). God the Father gave a people to his Son to save. These are the people for whom our Lord prays in his high priestly prayer (17:9): there they are distinguished from the world. In other words, those whom the Father gave to Christ to save are not coextensive with the world. This corresponds with Paul’s words in Eph. 1:4. Now we can see what Paul means by God choosing us in Christ; he means that in eternity past, God the Father in the covenant of redemption gave God the Son a people to save.
Now our Lord says, “All that the Father hath given me shall come to me; and him that cometh to me I will in no wise cast out” (37). Those whom the Father chose in Christ will come to Christ. A few verses before, our Lord defines coming to him in terms of faith in Christ (35). Thus those whom the Father chose will believe in Christ. Now the question is, do they believe because they were chosen, or are they chosen because they believe?
The answer comes in verses 44-45: “No man can come to me, except the Father which hath sent me draw him: and I will raise him up at the last day. It is written in the prophets, And the shall be all taught of God. Every man therefore that hath heard, and hath learned of the Father, cometh unto me.” How is it that men come to Christ and believe in him? Our Lord says that they do so because they are drawn by the Father (44). Moreover this drawing is effectual: “every man . . . that had heard, and hath learned of the Father” believes in Christ. Thus our Lord is not describing what some have called prevenient grace that can be rejected. This drawing is successful. And the one who draws men to faith in Christ is God.
Putting this together, we see that faith cannot be the basis of God’s election because faith is the product of God’s effectual drawing men to faith in Christ. In other words, just as we saw in Ephesians 2:8, faith is the gift of God. But if it is the gift of God, then God’s purpose stands behind our faith rather than being based upon it. God gave a people to the Son to save, not because he foresaw their faith, but because he purposed to give them faith so that they would come to Christ and receive the atonement purchased for them on the cross. God draws us to faith in Christ, and he does this on purpose, not by accident. And this purpose is rooted in God’s eternal election.
Consider next the report of the effects of Paul’s preaching in Pisidian Antioch in Acts 13. We are told that the Gentiles “heard this [the gospel]” and “they were glad, and glorified the word of the Lord: and as many as were ordained to eternal life believed” (13:48). Clearly, being ordained to eternal life is synonymous with election to salvation. This text is especially important because we have both faith and election mentioned in the same verse. And we are told how they relate to each other. The Gentiles who believed did so because they were ordained to eternal life. That is the natural meaning of the text. If I said, “As many as went to school got an education,” you would immediately recognize that what I meant was that those who got an education did so because they went to school. No one would think that I was saying that they went to school because they got an education. That doesn’t even make any sense. Even so, we shouldn’t think that Acts 13:48 is saying that people were ordained to eternal life because they believed. It is the other way around. Faith is the result of election, not the cause of it. If you have faith, you have God to thank. It is his grace and unconditional favor that has drawn you to his Son and opened your eyes to the beauty of the gospel. Salvation is of the Lord.
Then look at the way the apostle describes the Thessalonian believers, as he contrasts them to those who believed not the truth but had pleasure in unrighteousness (2 Thess. 2:12): “But we are bound to give thanks always to God for you, brethren beloved of the Lord, because God hath from the beginning chosen you to salvation through sanctification of the Spirit and belief of the truth: whereunto he called you by our gospel to the obtaining of the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ” (2:13-14). Here Paul says that God chose us to salvation “through sanctification and belief of the truth.” God’s choice is “through faith” in the same way it is “through sanctification.” Now if faith were the basis of God’s election, wouldn’t that mean that sanctification is also the basis of God’s election? But then that would contradict what the apostle writes in Eph. 1:4. We are not chosen because we are holy but to be holy. Rather, we are chosen through faith because God purposed to give the gift of faith (and holiness) to all whom he chose in Christ. God not only chooses the end, he also chooses the means. (Incidentally, this means that if you do not have faith in Christ, you have no reason to claim that you are elect. Only those who have faith and are living a sanctified life can claim to be chosen by the Father.)
This is corroborated by what Paul goes on to say in verse 14: “whereunto he called you by our gospel.” Whereunto what? Unto faith and sanctification. God effectually calls those whom he has chosen to believe the truth of the gospel. As many as are ordained to eternal life believe.
There are many, many other passages we could look at. In a future message, I would like to look at Paul’s exposition of these matters in Romans 8 and 9. But there is one more passage I want to consider with you this morning. It is that wonderful passage found in 2 Tim. 1:8-9. There Paul writes, “Be not thou therefore ashamed of the testimony of our Lord, nor of me his prisoner, but be thou partaker of the afflictions of the gospel according to the power of God; who hath saved us and called us with an holy calling, not according to our works, but according to his own purpose and grace, which was given us in Christ Jesus before the world began.” How did God save us? Once again, according to Paul, at the very bottom of our salvation stands God’s purpose and grace. And this purpose and grace is not conditioned on anything that we have done but was given to us in Christ Jesus. The very calling which brings us to faith is the fruit of which God’s electing purpose and grace is the root.
I also want to point out in these two verses that an understanding of God’s sovereign and gracious purpose in salvation, far from making us slothful and aimless in the life of faith, is especially suited to put iron in the blood of those who believe it. What could possibly be more steadying than to know that God’s unchanging purpose and love is the foundation of my hope of salvation? Especially in the face of persecution, when the temptation to capitulate to fears and abandon Christ is very real and poignant, the only thing that’s going to keep you going forward and to not be ashamed is to know that God is unchangeably for us in the midst of trials and sufferings. And the doctrine of election only undergirds such a conviction.
Now I recognize that this doctrine provokes a lot of questions. And many of these questions are worthy of our consideration, and sometimes I don’t think those who are Reformed take these objections seriously enough. And what makes them even more urgent is that there are a lot of people who have read the wrong implications into this doctrine and become Biblically imbalanced. I think the main question is what this means for evangelism. Another question has to do with the question of the freedom of the human will. I don’t have time to deal with these questions now, but I plan to in the next message. For now, however, I want to make the following points.
First, this doctrine, like the doctrine of the Trinity, is full of mystery, and therefore behooves us to approach it with humility and reverence. We are talking about the eternal councils of God here, and it should not surprise us that we are coming face to face with something we cannot fully understand. We should be careful that we do not confuse our inability to completely understand this doctrine (which is all of us) with the truth value of the doctrine. We should also be careful that we do not mistake mystery for irrationality. Just because we cannot fully understand something does not mean that it must therefore be irrational. Again, think of the doctrine of the Trinity.
Second, the gold standard for theological truth is not a manmade system but the Bible. And before you think you are exempt from the danger of manmade systems, think again. Everyone in this room has a theological system to which they adhere, and as it is the product of your personal understanding of Scripture, it is to that extent manmade. We all filter God’s word through our fallible minds and in the process, end up distorting some of it. That is why it is important to keep coming back to the Bible again and again and to test our understanding against the whole of God’s word.
But this means that we must submit all of our thinking to God’s word. We need to continually bring “into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ” (2 Cor. 10:5). We should believe everything the Bible says, whether we can at present see how it fits together or not. I believe in unconditional election because I believe the Bible teaches it. But for the same reason, I not only believe in unconditional election but also in the necessity of evangelism. This is because I believe the Bible teaches the responsibility of believers to evangelize. I also believe that my choices are significant and that I am responsible for my choices and actions. I believe it because I believe the Bible teaches it. Now I may not be able to see how it all fits together. We certainly should try to do so. But in the meantime, our job is to simply believe what we understand the Bible to teach.
In closing, let us return to Paul’s purpose. He is praising God for choosing him and the saints at Ephesus and faithful in Christ Jesus. He is thanking him for predestinating him to the adoption of children. For God to set his choice upon you is just another way of saying that he has loved you, and loved you from the foundation of the world. There has never been a time when his heart was not toward you. And this is not just a generic love but a personal, never-ending, saving love. What God declared to the prophet Jeremiah is true of every believer: “I have loved thee with an everlasting love: therefore with lovingkindness have I drawn thee” (Jer. 31:3). There is no greater reason to rejoice than this. There is no greater blessing that can be conferred upon anyone than this. And may we more fully see that since our salvation is of the Lord, we should seek him for everything and to see and feel that he should be at the center of our affections and lives.
What if you do not know the Lord? How should you respond to this doctrine? Well, you should respond by confessing your sins, repenting of them, and embracing Christ. The evidence for election is faith in Christ. The apostle Paul told the Thessalonian saints that he knew that they were elect. How? “For our gospel came not in word only, but also in power, and in the Holy Ghost, and in much assurance” (1 Thess. 1:4-5). Has the gospel come to you in power? Have you seen the blackness of your sins and felt the need that you have for the salvation and freedom that comes only in Christ? Then come to Christ and receive him as your Lord and Savior. “Let not conscience make you linger, nor of fitness fondly dream; all the fitness he requireth is to feel your need of him.” Come to Christ and be saved.