“In love he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace.” – Ephesians 1:5-6 (ESV)
Paul starts these verses with two words that are pivotal to our understanding: “In love.” The words of these verses are packed with faith-sustaining theology that experientially sets my heart ablaze with love for God in His unmerited, free, “un-asked-for” grace toward a wayward sinner like myself, who was not seeking Him in any manner at the time when I fell in love with Him. I take no credit for ever first loving Him. As Ephesians 2:1-2 states, and I gladly confess with it, “And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked.” I was running from Him angrily toward deeds of wickedness, gratifying my sinful nature, miserable in my rebellion against an infinitely holy God. I did not have any basically good intentions toward the Lord at that time. I was dead, a spiritual waste, as that one song goes, a burned out forest, no life at all. It was His sheer grace I was not obliterated on the spot during my rebellious days (same now for how I treat His grace toward me). But who am I that He would have mercy on me, when I had turned my back on Him willfully, outright defying Him to His face for the trials in my family I knew He had sovereign authority and reign over? I ran from Him with what strength and might I had, employing my members (as Paul says) in the service of evil, pursuing friends who denied Him, who hated Him, pursuing drugs and outright rebellion.
But in His sovereign love toward someone as fallen as myself, He had mercy on me the summer after my sophomore year in high school by cutting me to the heart with His eternal kindness and beauty, even at the time when I was pursuing wickedness in the form of drugs and outright rebellion against my parents, and most importantly, God Himself. He pursued me before I pursued Him. In fact, I confess experientially that I pursued Him precisely because He first pursued me (1 John 4:19). He didn’t just give me a nudge to help me lay hold of Christ, but He had to change the entire disposition of my heart to be able to see the beauty of Christ first, and then I could not help but lean upon Him for eternal rest because He was irresistibly lovely to me. I mean, to be honest, I began reading the Scriptures in the midst of smoking pot in my back yard! I sat out with a lawn chair at 2 in the morn, smokin’ it up, and reading the Psalms. And upon reading the Scriptures of God’s forgiveness toward sinners through the blood of Christ, God broke my heart for the evil in my life and He lavished grace after grace upon me. On a merely experiential level, this proves what is stated in Ephesians 1, Romans 9, etc. God saved me. I did nothing but receive grace upon grace. And having been shown grace, how could I not trust Christ for salvation at that very moment?
As Spurgeon said so beautifully (my paraphrase), what led me to read the Scriptures in the midst of my rebellion but the Holy Spirit preempting my will, going underneath my thoughts, beliefs, coming in and doing a supernatural work within me, even while I was partaking of sin? What led me to see the utterly ruined state of my soul before a sovereign, just and holy God but the work of the Spirit alone coming in power through the Scriptures to show me my total depravity? And then to make me seek Him with heart-felt desires? I owe it all to the grace of God, working in His due time and season. And according to Ephesians 1:4-5, this was His plan for me from the foundation of the world! That is massive, faith-sustaining doctrine right there, the kind of doctrine that can sustain a soul undergoing persecution, illness, loss of loved ones, financial woes, broken marriages, just name the trial. If this is true of the believer, as Paul states in Romans 8:35, what can separate us from the love of Christ if God has been for us before the foundation of the world!? Is this the plan for all people though? Sadly it is not. How do I know this? Because at the end of Revelation, looking into the future at the judgment of men, some will perish for all eternity due to their rebellion against the Creator. And I should have been one of them, if God had let me go my own way. With my sinfully corrupted will, had God not intervened, I would have freely chosen the fires of hell over Christ, even when presented with Him. Just like the Pharisees in the Gospels, had God not first turned my heart, I would have just gotten angrier at the mere sight of Christ. That’s where I was headed, no doubt. But God worked in my heart first and made me willing! The prophecies of the new covenant in Ezekial 11:19-20 and Jeremiah 31:31-34 had become a reality within me.
“And I will give them one heart, and a new spirit I will put within them. I will remove the heart of stone from their flesh and give them a heart of flesh, that they may walk in my statutes and keep my rules and obey them. And they shall be my people, and I will be their God.”
“Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the LORD. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the LORD. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.”
The only reason God made me to differ is due to His singular, sovereign work, which He had chosen long ago to carry out in me. Was I seeking this change from the heart? No, I was seeking sin and ways to displease Him. My will, desires, mind, body, all of me lied dead in sin, enslaved to its power over me. Praise God though for His electing love that I never earned, deserved or even asked for (namely because I didn’t care to)! God made me willing in the day of His power (Psalm 110:3). That is my only explanation as to why I am a believer in Jesus Christ and others have rejected it. What have I that I did not receive? (1 Corinthians 4:7) Including faith and desires for Christ? Were these not granted by God as a gift? If not, did I produce them while I was dead in sin? I think not. And that is not my experience either.
If you think of the predestining work of God as this harsh, grandfather character making random choices as to who will and who will not enter heaven, please discard that from your mind. God does not make random choices. Greek determinism, as it has wormed its way into Christian doctrine, that God saves by sheer decree without any reference to the work of Christ for sinners, has no place in the Word of God! I realize people may have presented this rather harshly and frankly acted like jerks toward you in presenting this. Please come to His Word though with a mind free from the doctrines of men and their wicked behavior. Again, the first two words of the verses above are, “In love.” “In love he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ.” This is the backdrop for everything concerning predestination. Love. Every time predestination is spoken of by Paul or Peter, it is always for the edification of His readers, not as some philosophical mind game used to try and draw the intellectual crowd. No, rather, “Rejoice! You are freely chosen by God for salvation through the work of Christ on your behalf! Weep for joy at the mercy God has granted you!” Paul emphatically shows us the vastness of the love of God precisely in predestination with the letter to the Ephesians!
The next point we need to see in these verses is that in great, infinite, eternal love, the Father predestined us for adoption as sons. Adoption into the family of God is what we were meant for as believers, from eternity! When I think about where I should have gone had it not been for the work of God to first change my heart, and then see that I am not only accepted by God but brought into His family, it makes me cry with joy in my heart that He would do such a wondrous thing for me, when I deserve nothing but eternal torment in hell. We have been predestined for adoption into God’s family. There is nothing greater than to be adopted into the only family that will ever matter, God’s. How wonderful!
But how did God bring about this great work to change those sinners (who justly deserve hell) whom He has set His unconditional, loving affection upon? He brought it about through the work of Christ on the cross. This was the plan from the foundation of the world. Several times throughout this passage, Paul makes the statements, “In Christ,” “Through Christ,” “In Him”. Predestined for adoption through Christ is the short way to say the verse. Our election is never out of sync with the infinitely valuable work of Christ to redeem His people whom He fore-loved. Our election is right in line with the cross. Our election to salvation is accomplished through the cross. Jesus stated in John 10:11, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” In love, the Father chose a people before anything had been made (v. 4, Revelation 13:8), sent His Son into the world to live the perfect life they could never have attained (Romans 8:3-4; John 17:19), died the awful eternal death they should have died (Revelation 5:9, John 10:11, Mark 10:45), gave them His perfect record and righteousness through faith (Romans 5:1), historically rose from the grave by the power of God (John 20), and in due time in history, effectually called His people (by the work of the Holy Spirit) whom He has chosen from every tribe, language, people, and nation for salvation through the indiscriminate preaching of the Gospel to all people (John 11:51-52, Romans 10:14-15). This has been the plan all along.
In America, we prize our free rights. It is exalted in the public square as something we are owed. Conservative, liberal, Democrat, Republican, Libertarian, independent, it doesn’t matter. Our society operates on the “personal rights” principle. “If you interfere with my rights, I’ll take you to court.” So the idea of a sovereign God in our culture is absurd (which is where you get all the open-theists popping up in the church now, even amongst some theologically conservative denominations). And even further than that, the idea of a sovereign God who elects fallen men to salvation is just unfair and evil on the part of God. Why? Because it interferes with what we deem as fair in our democracy, and it interferes with our “free, deserved rights.” Why doesn’t He save all we ask? All we can answer is that His purpose, desire, and prerogative is to save who He wants. Who are we to talk back to God concerning this? Most American Christians, being that we live in a democracy, when presented with just the concept of predestination immediately say, “I didn’t vote for that!” And unfortunately, the church has in most part adopted this thinking as well. The most common way of getting around the predestining work of God is to say God chose us because we first chose Him, based primarily upon a poor exegetical analysis of Romans 8:28-30 (i.e. they fail to take into account the historical and Biblical use of the word, “Know.”
But if God’s choice is based on our choice, what kind of a choice is that? It’s not a choice, but simply a default reaction, and in no way exalts God for His power and might over all things, including salvation. When Moses asked God to show him His glory in Exodus 33:18-19, to show him the essence of His power and might, God’s response to Him was, “I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will have mercy on whom I have mercy.” Or in other words God is exalted and glorified the most in His freedom to dispense mercy upon whom He chooses. His response is basically, “I choose who to have mercy upon. This is the essence of my glory and freedom.” And this is the exact passage Paul uses in Romans 9:15 to defend the predestination God and His justice (rightness) in it. This is the glory of the grace of God! Loving election! The Lord is free, unbound, especially by sinful man! And unfortunately, the predominant thought in American Bible studies when people arrive at Ephesians 1, Romans 8, 9, 1 Peter 1, John 6, etc, is that God chooses because we first choose Him. It’s like Tommy Nelson from Denton Bible Church has said in talking about this error, “God votes for you, Satan votes against you, you make the deciding vote.” So God is dependent upon the sinful will of man, that is dead in sin and will never choose Him? I don’t think so. Arrogance. Have we been that conditioned in our free democracy that God must bow whenever we so choose? God is the sovereign One. We are not. The heart of this thinking is rebellion against God as the sovereign One.
Which explanation exalts the glory of the grace of God as Ephesians states? That God is dependent on our choice OR that we are utterly dependent upon His? Is this not what differentiates the message of Christianity from all other religions, that salvation is a work of God, not us? Predestination brings theological depth to that message all the more. Who gets the decisive credit for salvation in both explanations? Man retains control over his life if God chose us because we first chose Him. And that feels nice. And that is what is preached more often than not. Rather, according to the Scriptures, God chose us, “according to the purpose of his will,” (v. 5) “according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will.” (v. 11) God gets all of the glory, not 99%. And if you think about it, if we get credit for that 1% decisiveness, who really gets credit for salvation? We do. God did most of the work, but with what strength we have we latched on with our “righteous” choice? We pulled ourselves up into the power of the cross? I sure didn’t. This is works-based salvation at its core. Rather the cross gave me life when I was dead. And this was the core issue right here in the Reformation.
Predestination is for the glory of the grace of God (v. 6), according to His purpose (v. 5), which He brought to fruition in the Person and work of Christ (v. 4). It is a beautiful doctrine meant to sustain us who believe because we see that the roots of our salvation begin in God, not us. The roots of grace go into eternity past with God. What is grace even? An undeserved gift. Is this not what salvation is? The only reason you chose Christ was because He was pleased to reveal Him to you in power. Your story as a believer may not be like mine (or Paul’s on the road to Damascus to persecute Christians for that matter), but all of us were saved in this way. It may have been a process of years that you came to understand the Gospel, just like a seed that is watered and gradually grows. But it is a definite event that occurs, just as seed planting and watching a tree grow as a result. People are saved in different ways. Nevertheless, if you have trusted Christ for salvation, at some point you saw the beauty of Christ, not because you were smarter, wiser, more spiritual, born into a Christian family, but because God worked in your heart in order that you would believe in Christ for salvation. He didn’t leave you to your own wavering sinful will, but effected salvation, made sure it got done. How wonderful is the predestining work of God to save sinners like me! How unworthy I am that He would set loving affection on me when I had turned away so violently. The point of predestination is humility before the throne of your Maker. I am a ruined sinner before the throne of the Creator! Is this not what conformity to Christ ultimately looks like? Humility? Poverty in spirit? If predestination does not produce this in the life of the believer, it has not been understood in the Scriptural sense. It is meant to squash pride, produce humility, and bring about tears of joy, weeping at the wonder of God’s unfathomable mercy in the cross of Christ!