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, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. – Ephesians 1:4-10 ESV
These verses contain one of the most difficult and hotly debated doctrines found in the Bible. Even before the time of the Reformation in 1516, discussions concerning predestination had been typically heated and divided. There was little to no consensus on the topic because of the seemingly unbridgeable chasm between the topics of God’s sovereignty and man’s free will. It was Augustine of Hippo who posited the idea that the doctrine of election taught that “all saved must be predestined to salvation … before they have committed any deed of any sort” (Diarmaid MacCullough, The Reformation: A History). Men who were on the same side of the Reformation rift, like John Calvin, Martin Luther and Philipp Melanchthon, openly discussed and debated the doctrine of predestination. But even clerics on the Catholic side had strong opinions on the topic.
In the verses above, Paul somewhat casually introduces this issue without much fanfare and with little explanation. He simply writes, “In love he [God] predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will” (Ephesians 1:4 ESV). The Greek word translated “predestined” is προορίζω (proorizō) which means “to predetermine, decide beforehand; to foreordain, appoint beforehand” (“G4309 – proorizō – Strong’s Greek Lexicon (KJV).” Blue Letter Bible). It speaks of God’s sovereign role in man’s salvation. John Stott writes, “Now everybody finds the doctrine of election difficult. ‘Didn’t I choose God?’ somebody asks indignantly; to which we must answer ‘Yes, indeed you did, and freely, but only because in eternity God had first chosen you.’ ‘Didn’t I decide for Christ?’ asks somebody else; to which we must reply ‘Yes, indeed you did, and freely, but only because in eternity God had first decided for you’” (John R. W. Stott, The Message of Ephesians, p. 26). In Paul’s redemptive theology, mankind is in a terrible, irreconcilable state: dead in their trespasses and sins (Ephesians 2:1), blinded by the god of this world (2 Corinthians 4:4), imprisoned under sin (Galatians 3:22), incapable of understanding God or seeking Him (Romans 3:11), incapable of doing anything good (Romans 3:11), and devoid of any righteousness (Romans 3:10).
The blind are incapable of seeing the light. The dead are unable to choose life. The deaf cannot hear the good news. Just as Jesus had to call Lazarus from the grave and give him the life he needed to obey Jesus’ command, so must the sinner be given new life (regeneration) by God in order that he might see the beauty of the gift being offered to him and accept it. Yes, as Dr. Stott so aptly put it, we do decide for Christ, but only after the Spirit of God has awakened us from death and given us the capacity to hear the good news and receive it.
Earlier in verse four, Paul had written, “he [God] chose us in him before the foundation of the world.” The word, “chose” is the Greek word ἐκλέγομαι (eklegomai), which means “to pick out, choose, to pick or choose out for one’s self” (“G1586 – eklegomai – Strong’s Greek Lexicon (KJV).” Blue Letter Bible). God, in His divine will, has chosen to redeem some out of all those who have been condemned to eternal separation from Him because of their sin and rebellion against Him. Had God, in His grace and mercy, intervened and promised the coming Messiah as the answer to mankind’s sin problem, no one would have been saved. Adam’s sin condemned all mankind and left them in a helpless, hopeless state, unable to save themselves from the inevitability of their future condemnation. All were condemned because of their sin, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23 ESV). Men don’t suddenly wake up, see their sin and understand that they need a Savior. They must have their eyes opened by God. It is God who gives the spiritually dead life, the spiritually blind sight, and the spiritually deaf the capacity to hear for the first time in their life. Salvation is the work of God, from start to finish. Jesus claimed, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him” (John 6:44 ESV). Later on in that same chapter, John records Jesus as saying, “This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless the Father has enabled them” (John 6:65 NIV).
Paul’s point is not to negate the role of man in his own salvation. We must believe. We must accept. We must turn from our own sin and to the saving work of Jesus Christ. But every aspect of that process is made possible by God Himself. He “chose us in him before the foundation of the world” (Ephesians 4:4 ESV). And He chose us to “be holy and blameless before him” (Ephesians 4:4 ESV). He “predestined us for adoption as Sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will” – not ours. (Ephesians 4:5 ESV). It is all due to the “praise of his glorious grace” (Ephesians 4:6 ESV). It is in Christ that we have redemption through his blood and the forgiveness of our sins. He is the one who has made known the mystery of His will. God is the one who has lavished His grace on us.
Salvation is a wonderful gift, provided by God for sinful men. There is not a man or woman who has ever lived who has deserved to be saved or who has ever had the capacity to save themselves. Paul paints a very bleak picture when he writes, “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one” (Romans 3:10-12 ESV). And yet, Paul reminds us of the good news: “but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8 ESV). God’s sovereignty and man’s free will continues to be a paradox that is difficult for us to comprehend. ““It [election] involves a paradox that the New Testament does not seek to resolve, and that our finite minds cannot fathom. Paul emphasizes both the sovereign purpose of God and man’s free will” (Francis Foulkes, The Epistle of Paul to the Ephesians, p. 46).