Sermon Notes: Ephesians 1:4-6 – He chose us
These are the notes of a sermon preached by Andy Evans on the morning of the 26 July 2009 at Firwood Church. Click here to stream or download the sermon audio.
3 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, 4 even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love 5 he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, 6 to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved. 7 In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, 8which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight 9 making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ 10as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.
11In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will, 12so that we who were the first to hope in Christ might be to the praise of his glory. 13In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, 14who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory.
1. INTRODUCTION – GOD SAVES
a. That we might know
This glorious sentence (verse 3 through to 14), perhaps the most glorious sentence in the whole of Scripture, is underpinned by an equally glorious truth: salvation is, first and foremost, an act of God. Or, let me put this another way, the decisive agent in the story of salvation is God. Or again, the decisive action necessary to secure your salvation and my salvation is undertaken by God.
This is profound and difficult and we will spend the next two weeks unpacking and allowing this weighty truth to take root in our souls. But first, I want to show you that, for Paul, such weighty doctrine is always intended to have a practical application. We begin then with the second of Paul’s great prayers in this letter to the church in Ephesus,
For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith—that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. (Ephesians 3:14-19)
I want you to note this carefully; Paul prays that we would be filled with knowledge. He wants us to comprehend (v. 18) and he wants us to know (v. 19).
This runs contrary to those elements in evangelicalism that privileges and uses experience to push back against doctrine. This anti-intellectualism has bled into the mainstream of evangelicalism and is often understood in terms of a deep suspicion of doctrine and theology. In this system feeling is taken to be superior to knowing.
Paul, however, wants us to comprehend and know, but for Paul this is so much more that abstract intellectualism or dry academia. The knowledge that Paul speaks of is centred upon a person, Christ Jesus. Paul prays that we would comprehend the vast riches of Christ’s love for us. That we would see and know and comprehend all that he is, all that he has done for us and all that we are in him.
My prayer is that as we meditate upon the deep, profound truths contained within this letter, we would grow in our knowledge of him. But I pray for more than this, I pray, with Paul, that as these deep truths take root in our soul, our hearts would respond in love and gratitude. I pray that this overflow of love would find expression in steadfast assurance, holy living and praise of him.
Once again, the outcome of these truths and our lives is that we would be ‘to the praise of his glorious grace’ (v. 6).
b. The Gospel Begins with God
Last week we saw that the Gospel begins with God. He initiates and we respond.
Over the coming weeks, we will see the entirety of the Godhead at work in salvation. In verses 3 to 6, we will find God the Father at work choosing (v. 4), electing (verse 5) and blessing (v 6) those who are his. In verses 7 to 12 we will find Paul shifting his attention to the work of God the Son in salvation. We will see that, in Christ, there is redemption, forgiveness (v. 7), the revelation of God’s purposes (v. 10) and the guarantee of our inheritance (v. 11). In verses 11 to 14, we will find Paul focusing in on the activity of God the Spirit sealing believers until the day of redemption.
The Gospel begins with God and, in the glorious work of salvation we see the fullness of the Godhead at work.
This is where we were last week,
[God has] blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places (Ephesians 1:3)
God blesses believers in Christ with every spiritual (Spirit bestowed) blessing.
This then helps us understand how verse 4 flows out of verse 3. Consider,
even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him… (Ephesians 1:4)
The conjunction, ‘even as’, tells us that we must look to what has gone before. In verse three, Paul sets out the great theme of this hymn (we must remember that this entire passage is first and foremost doxology, Paul’s praise-response to the glory of God’s grace evident in salvation).
Paul will now spend the next eleven verses unpacking the glorious truth of this life giving work. We now find that salvation, our salvation, yours and mine, begins with God working.
2. GOD CHOOSES
a. He chose us
The Gospel does not simply begin with God, it begins with a God who chooses; ‘he chose us’. God chose us.
This is the beginning of the Gospel. Paul writes to this growing, thriving church dominated by Gentiles and for whom the notion of the one Living God and the gospel of Jesus Christ will have been entirely new and unexpected. These are not Jews to whom belong the covental promises and the Old Testament Scriptures. These believers were formerly, as Paul will later remind them, firmly on the outside.
And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near. (Ephesians 2:17)
Some of you will be surprised to hear this, but I have not always been an athlete with the astounding physique you see before you. When I was in high school I was a nerd, only without the glasses. This meant that Sports lessons could be a most excruciating experience. More often than I care to remember, two lads would selected from the group and the rest of us would line up against the wall. The two would then be invited to pick their teams. I would spend the next five minutes praying that I would not be the last one stood against the wall waiting, waiting, waiting to be picked. Threatened with such acute embarrassment, even second to the last seemed appealing.
Some of you know how this feels. Some of you were raised, even live, in a dark place where you are reminded that you are not wanted. Maybe your parents told you that you were not wanted. Maybe your husband or wife makes you feel second rate and unloved. Perhaps you struggle with intense loneliness and know what it feels to be on the outside forever looking in.
I want you to know that, if you are a believer, God chose you. If you are an unbeliever, I want you to know that, as you respond and run to him, you are not an accident. You are chosen by the Living God.
Know this, God chose you.
Consider the glorious nature of this election, this divine act of choosing.
i. God chose us in him
Again we find that monumental phrase, God chose us in him. God chose us in Christ Jesus.
Some believers start to twitch, stammer and splutter when the subject of unconditional election comes up in conversation. The Doctrine of Unconditional Election teaches that God, in eternity past, predestines some, not all, for salvation apart from our own merit (hence the ‘unconditional’). There are worries that this doctrine undermines human autonomy (which, thank God, it does and we will return to this later) and somehow diminishes the gospel.
The truth that God chooses us is astonishing and makes the Gospel of Jesus Christ even more glorious. It answers the question frustrating every evangelist who sees some turn to Christ and others reject the gospel with bitter curses. It brings comfort to the Pastor who sees some continue to persevere through the most horrendous of circumstances and some fall away irrevocably. It brings courage to the believer in the face of difficulty, trial and great temptation.
God chooses, but more than this, he chooses us in Christ Jesus.
Why is it that you and I turned to Christ, embraced our crucified and now glorified King when our friends and loved ones rejected him? Because God chose us. God called us to him. God enabled us to see the majesty, beauty and glory of Jesus which compelled us to turn from our old life and instead treasure him above all things.
God chose us in a way which depended upon, drew attention to and magnified the Son of God, which leads me to my next point.
ii. Before the foundation of the world
And so God chose those who will believe. The question is when does this sovereign choice take place? Paul answers this question emphatically,
…he chose us in him before the foundation of the world (Ephesians 1:4)
That phrase, ‘before the foundation of the world’, sounds curious to our 21 Century ears. Paul is referencing the act of creation, that moment when God said, ‘Let there be light’ (Genesis 1:3) and spoke all things into being. Paul references that moment and then points back before that moment. Paul understands that here, in eternity past, before God laid the foundation of the world, he was at work choosing a people for himself.
Pause for a moment. Does this shock you? It should.
This means that God chose you, devised a rescue plan before the Fall and before there was ever a need for rescue.
Now consider how this applies to the cross, Luke records the early church praising God in the context of a most shocking truth,
for truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place. (Acts 4:27-28)
Ask yourself the question, ‘Who killed Jesus?’
The answer is simple, ‘both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel’ killed Jesus. Wicked men conspired against the Son of God, plotted his murder and then put him to death.
But wait. Re-read the passage and ask yourself this question again, ‘Who killed Jesus?’
Now the answer is not quite so simple or clear cut. We read that these wicked men did, ‘whatever [God’s] hand and [God’s] plan had predestined to take place.’ We ask again, ‘Who killed Jesus?’ and there is a very real sense in which the answer to the question has to be, ‘God killed Jesus’.
This is perhaps the most shocking truth in a litany of shocking truths. This should cause us to catch our breath: ‘Yet it was the will of the LORD to crush him’ (Isaiah 53:10).
But how does this help us understand the way in which the cross fits into God’s before-the-foundation-of-the-earth sovereign act of choosing a people for himself? The link is found in the word ‘predestined’; wicked men did, ‘whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place’.
Despite disagreement and controversy around the Doctrine of Unconditional Election, there is little disagreement with regards to the meaning of the word eklegomai, here translated ‘chose’ (it means ‘chose’). Similarly there is little disagreement with regards to the meaning of the word prooriso, here translated ‘predestined’ (which means, ‘to decide upon beforehand, to predetermine’, BAGD).
We can be confident, therefore, that the cross was not the action of a God who was blindsided and reacting in response to events shifting and changing around him. The cross was not a response, but a predetermined plan. God planned the cross.
Luke does not indicate when this plan was formulated. The Apostle John, however, in writing of the cross in the book of Revelation employs a similar thought process to that found in the Apostle Paul’s letters and, more specifically, in Ephesians Chapter 1,
Also [the beast] was allowed to make war on the saints and to conquer them. And authority was given it over every tribe and people and language and nation, and all who dwell on earth will worship it, everyone whose name has not been written before the foundation of the world in the book of life of the Lamb who was slain. (Revelation 13:7-8)
John tells us that there are two groups of people, those whose name is not written in the book of life of the Lamb and those whose names are written in the book of life of the Lamb.
John continues that those whose names are not in the book will worship the beast (Satan) and implies that those whose names are written in the book will remain faithful to Christ Jesus.
John does not use words like predestined or chosen and yet his thought process is almost identical to that of the Apostle Paul. Paul speaks of God exercising his sovereign choice before the foundation of the world, forming a people for himself. The Apostle John uses different language, but his intention is clearly the same: the names of the saints are written in a book, ‘before the foundation of the world’ (v. 8). The decisive action, therefore, as to whether we will be a saint or a lover of the beast is predetermined by God before the foundation of the world.
Moreover, consider the name of this book. The book is entitled, ‘the book of life of the Lamb who was slain’. And this book, which bears the story of the cross, was written before the foundation of the world.
This should shake the foundations of our world. This should shake our preconceptions about our place and importance in this world and this should decimate any notion of self-reliance, self-dependence and self-righteousness.
God chose us and, more than this, he planned the cross, the means by which we would be bought back from sin, brought back to life and reconciled to himself, before the foundation of the world. This gives us great cause to worship: how great is our God!
b. Excurses – Answering Objections
I now want to pause for a few moments and undertake a brief excurses in order to clarify confusion and answer the most common objections.
OBJECTION #1 – THE DOCTRINE OF CONDITIONAL ELECTION UNDERMINES HUMAN RESPONSIBILITY
Throughout Scripture men and women are commanded to repent and turn to God,
The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent (Acts 17:30)
Similarly men and women are exhorted to believe and receive the Son of God as our greatest treasure and most sovereign Lord,
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. (John 3:16-18)
Even Paul, in Ephesians Chapter 1 amidst all this talk of God’s sovereign election, draws attention to the necessity of belief,
In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him (Ephesians 1:13)
There are, therefore, two truths which we must hold in proper balance. The first is this: men and women are called to repent of sin and believe in Christ and, in so doing, they receive the free offer of eternal life. The second is this, God from eternity past chooses some to be saved.
Practically speaking then, if you are a believer, it is wholly wrong to sit back on the easy chair of life and refuse to serve and pursue evangelism because we believe that God has got it all covered. This is fatalism and is incompatible with Biblical Christianity.
Instead you are called to believe, to run to Christ and to pursue individual holiness. You are called to share the Gospel with the whole world, beginning with those around you. You are called to spend yourself for the sake of the kingdom. And all of this, yes, all of this is energised by the truth that he loved you first. God chose you.
Similarly, if you are an unbeliever and this morning you feel the weight of conviction and you find that Jesus appears altogether lovely to you; then respond! God may be working on your heart, and such glorious grace demands a response.
For those who believe, the truth that he chose us should be so beautiful that it changes everything.
OBJECTION #2 – PAUL IS TALKING ABOUT NATIONS NOT INDIVIDUALS
This is easy to discount in relation to Ephesians Chapter 1. Throughout the Chapter, the benefits of the ‘every spiritual blessing’ referred to in verse 3 is applied to ‘us’.
[He] has blessed us (v. 3)
he chose us (v. 4)
he predestined us (v. 5)
he has blessed us (v. 6)
we have redemption […] according to the riches of his grace, 8which he lavished upon us (v. 7-8)
making known to us the mystery of his will (v. 9)
In him we have obtained an inheritance (v. 11)
This is important because the ‘us’ and the ‘we’ are inclusive. What I mean by this is that both the Apostle Paul, a Jew, and the believers in Ephesus, predominantly Gentile, stand within the group designated as the ‘us’ and ‘we’. Verse 4, ‘he chose us’ and verse 5, ‘he predestined us’, simply cannot refer to God’s purposes for a nation as with the group designated by the ‘us’ and the ‘we’ are multiple, if not many nationalities.
Furthermore, the application of the benefits of salvation is so broad it simply makes no sense to read this in any other way than referring to all believers.
There is a great wonder in this. The God who created all things and, at this very moment holds all things together, devises a plan which incorporates individual people. Moreover, this awesome Creator and Sustainer God calls you and me by name.
OBJECTION #3 – PREDESTINATION IS PREDICATED UPON GOD’S FOREKNOWLEDGE
In one sense this is absolutely true. God is omniscient and knows all things past, present and future; is all wise and, as such, knows every possible outcome. When God chooses, he is not simply picking a name out of a hat, he foreknows. Paul indicates this clearly at verse 8,
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 (Ephesians 1:7-8)
God lavishes grace upon those he chose and he does this in all wisdom and insight. In other words, salvation is no mere lottery. All Bible-believing Christians know this to be true.
Paul states the role of foreknowledge in God’s sovereign act of salvation more clearly in his letter to the Romans,
For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified. (Romans 8:29-30)
It is here that we face the most serious objection to the view of unconditional election.
The argument runs as follows, God foreknows all things and all peoples. He knows all we will become and he foresees every possible outcome. And so God, foreknowing all things, looks down the corridor of time and determines who will respond and who will reject the gospel. On the basis of this foreknowledge, then, God chooses those who will accept the Gospel.
The problem with this view is threefold.
Firstly it subordinates God’s freedom to act beneath man’s freewill (which is, largely, the point being made by this objection). This, however, surely renders God’s election or sovereign choice as meaningless. It is like offering a man with a nut allergy the choice between a Lion Bar and a Milky Way. We might say, ‘Well, you had the freedom to choose’, but, in reality there is only one choice on the table. He chooses the Milky Way, or death. In privileging man’s free will above God’s freedom to act, we inevitably limit God’s ability to choose. He chooses only those he knows will choose him. I cannot see how this can but diminish his glory and his praise.
Secondly, this view requires great care to ensure that we do not stray into dangerous (and, by which, I mean heretical) territory.
If what we mean by this understanding of foreknowledge is that God chooses the people who are smart enough, enlightened enough, wise enough and good enough, what does this then say about Scripture’s claims that we are radically depraved, in ourselves, incapable of seeing, choosing and responding to God? Paul writes elsewhere in Romans,
“None is righteous, no, not one;
no one understands;
no one seeks for God. (Romans 3:10b-11)
Furthermore, such a view appears to contradict God’s purposes in election as set out by Paul just one chapter later,
And not only so, but also when Rebekah had conceived children by one man, our forefather Isaac, though they were not yet born and had done nothing either 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.” (Romans 9:10-13)
It seems that the purpose of election is to remove any possibility of justification by works. Rather, it appears that God is determined to emphasise and display his glorious grace (Ephesians 1:6).
If we accept the view that we somehow have within us the ability to suss God out, see God and respond to God, what does this then do to grace? This leads us down the road of Pelagianism or, at best, Semi-Pelagianism.
Thirdly, this view does not stand up to scrutiny.
Why is it that one person is open and accepts the gospel and another does not? We might argue that one person has emotional baggage that results in him being hostile to the things of God. Or perhaps he lives in a culture closed to the gospel and has very little exposure to the truth of Christ Jesus. Perhaps we might argue that his love of sin is so great that his heart is utterly hardened and unreceptive. My question is this, does not God determine our place of birth, our family circumstances, whether we have access to an education and whether we have an opportunity to pursue sin without restraint?
Does not the story of the Apostle Paul’s conversion stand opposed to this limiting of God’s sovereign grace? Was not Paul hardened, in rebellion and intent on persecuting the Church of Christ? Do we see that God was restrained in anyway in the case of Paul?
But […] he who had set me apart before I was born, and who called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, in order that I might preach him among the Gentiles… (Galatians 1:15-16)
And with this, I return to the matter in hand.
3. CONFIDENCE IN HIM
iii. According to the purpose of his will
We have seen that God chooses us in Christ before the foundation of the world and we have considered that there is, perhaps even among us, concern and confusion with regards to the Doctrine of Unconditional Election. The real question at the heart of all of this is how can we be confident that God’s decision, that his sovereign choice, is good and just.
Paul gives us two reasons we can be confident in God’s sovereign election,
In love he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will (Ephesians 1:4-5)
I begin by addressing the second reason first. Paul writes that God chooses a people for himself in accordance with the ‘purpose of his will’.
Ponder this for a moment. Infinitely wise and omniscient God chooses to save some in accordance with his sovereign will. This is why I embrace the Doctrine of Unconditional Election as it gives me great hope.
I, like you, work alongside and live among many, many, many people who do not and will not accept the gospel. They are exercising their free will. My prayer is that God would intervene and knock them to the floor and change their hard stubborn hearts. I do not want God to respect their autonomy; I do not want God to be a gentleman. I want God to be God and step in and save them.
If you are an unbeliever this morning, my prayer is God would reveal himself to you and, in doing so, that he would overwhelm your desire for sin and lesser gods with an intense, unquenchable love for the Son of God.
I find great encouragement in this and I believe Paul did too. Luke describes Paul facing great opposition in Corinth when Jesus intervenes with an amazing word of encouragement,
And the Lord said to Paul one night in a vision, “Do not be afraid, but go on speaking and do not be silent, for I am with you, and no one will attack you to harm you, for I have many in this city who are my people.” And he stayed a year and six months, teaching the word of God among them. (Acts 13:9-11)
Paul was afraid, perhaps considering leaving Corinth, when Jesus speaks to him and encourages him that there are many ‘who are my people’. What does Jesus mean by this? Jesus is telling Paul that there are many people in the city whom God has chosen before the foundation of world. Paul takes this as an encouragement and continues to share the gospel.
Be encouraged that you are not the decisive agent in anyone’s salvation. You are but a messenger and it is God who perfectly works out his perfect plan. Be encouraged in evangelism when you do not see any fruit, God has been at work preparing a harvest from the foundation of the world. Be humble in fruitful times, it is God who is at work fulfilling his purposes.
Furthermore, there is a great beauty in this which is not fully captured by the ESV translators. The New King James Version, I think, puts this better,
[God] predestined us to adoption as sons by Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the good pleasure of His will (Ephesians 1:5)
The predestination that Paul describes is not a cold, calculating and detached choosing, it is the act of a sovereign God who feels intensely and takes pleasure in all he does. This leads me to my next and final point.
iv. In love
The first reason he gives us, however, is this: God chooses a people for himself in love, ‘In love he predestined us’.
I want us to grasp hold of this.
Our salvation, our rescue, is a result of his great love and it is from this abundance of love that he chose us.
It is important that we think careful about this. Some would take this verse as an opportunity to build up self-esteem and self-worth, perhaps preaching, ‘Look how valuable you are that he loves you so…’ I ask myself, and so should you, is this what Paul really means?
I think the answer is found in verse 6 in which we are told that,
he predestined us […] to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved (Ephesians 1:5-6)
The key in understanding the kind of love that motivates God in choosing us is, I think, found at the end of verse 6 in that unusual title, ‘Beloved’. In this passage, stretching from verse 3 to verse 6, we find two objects of love. We see that God’s sovereign choice is motivated by his love for those who are his and we see that the Son is the Father’s Beloved.
There is a contrast here. It is impossible to understand the love of God for mankind without first understanding the love of God for himself. The Father loves the Son because he is perfect, flawless, holy, wonderful, glorious and beautiful. The Father loves the Son because he is infinitely lovely. So, too, the Son loves the Father because he cannot do otherwise. The Father, as the Son, is infinitely worthy and the Son must respond in love and adoration.
It is from this fountain of perfect, endless, infinite love that he loves us. He does not love us in the same way as he loves the Son. The Father loves the Son because he is lovable. You and I are not.
In this we see the grace of God in all its glory. An infinitely worthy God chooses to fix his affections on his worthless creatures, not because he must, but because he so chooses.
This, I hope, will kill any sense of self-esteem. Rather, we esteem him because we are overwhelmed by his glorious grace extended to unworthy sinners, now called children of God.
This, I hope, will kill any sense of self-confidence. Rather, we place our hope in him confident that the infinite and unsearchable riches of his grace can never and will never be exhausted.
And this, I hope, will kill any sense of self-reliance and, as we respond to the call to holiness and obedience, we would surrender ourselves wholly and completely to him that he may shine most brightly.