The Unbreakable Chain of Salvation (Part 2) – What Election in Christ Means in Ephesians 1:3-6
In part 1 of this series on election, we considered the meaning of “foreknowledge” in Romans 8:29. You can read the article here.
Definition of Terms
Election refers to “that eternal act of God whereby He, in His sovereign good pleasure, and on account of no foreseen merit in them, chooses a certain number of men to be the recipients of special grace and of eternal salvation. /1/
Predestination refers to how God foreordains (determines in advance) all events and circumstances to accomplish his eternal plan to manifest his glory and bless his people.
Election in Ephesians 1
First, election is an act of supreme love. Election is not some impersonal plans executed by a cold and remote Creator. In election, the heavenly Father chooses his people “in love” (v. 4) for “the adoption of children” into his family. The heavenly Father is not a grudging God, for he has generously blessed the elect “in Christ with every spiritual blessing.” (v. 3, 5). In short, election as “glorious grace” is the magnificent fountain of “all spiritual blessings” (v. 6) listed throughout this epistle.
Second, election is unconditional. The blessings of God’s salvation originated ultimately from God’s eternal purpose of election, that is, to predestine believers for adoption through Christ. Election is pre-temporal. God the Father chose us in Christ “before the foundation of the world” (cf. 2 Tim. 1:9-10; 2 Thess. 2:13). Paul emphasizes that God’s election was totally sovereign, without any influence from any human action since all men in their sin have forfeited the blessings of God. Paul is merely repeating what he emphasized in the Book of Romans that God chose Jacob and not Esau as he pleases (Rom. 9:11-13). Election rests exclusively on the sovereign freedom, wisdom and good pleasure of God.
Third, the purpose of election is that we might be “holy and blameless” before him (Eph. 1:4; Titus 2:14; 1 Thess. 4:7; 1 Pet. 1:1-2). God does not elect people based on any holiness in them; instead he elects unworthy sinners that they might be holy and blameless. The fruit of election for God’s chosen people is that they will display purity and holiness in their daily life. The word “blameless” is also an anticipation of the promise that God will present his chosen people as “blameless” in his holy presence just as the Church will be presented as the bride spotless and without wrinkle when Christ returns (Eph. 5:27; Jude 24).
Fourth, the benefit election is adoption into God’s family. “He predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ” (Eph. 1:5). As adopted children, believers enjoy the status of “sonship” with its immense privileges and responsibilities. Adoption means believers can have free access to the Father since they are the special objects of his love. The God who elects is generous and blesses his children abundantly. As heirs they will inherit the overflowing blessings of salvation. “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” (verses 7–8).
Fifth, election is “in Christ.” Paul repeatedly says that election and the grace that flows from it are “in Christ” (Eph. 1:3; c.f. verses 4 & 6) and “through Jesus Christ” (v. 5) Sam Storms elaborates that
when God elected a people from the fallen mass of humanity, he never intended to save them apart from his Son but only by means of what his Son, the Lord Jesus, would accomplish in his redemptive work. Jesus is therefore the means by which God’s electing purpose is put into effect as well as the goal of that election, inasmuch as it is God’s purpose through election to sum up all things in Christ (Eph. 1:10)…His sinless life, atoning death, and glorious resurrection were the means through which God’s electing purpose was put into effect. /2/
Arminians understand “in Christ” to mean that individuals are chosen for salvation if they first place their faith “in Christ.” There are two problems with this view:
1. The reality is that fallen men are dead in sin since they “lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath” (Eph. 2:3). As such, they do not have the desire nor the ability to choose God by their own “free will”. Paul demonstrates conclusively in Romans 1-3 that sinners refuse to acknowledge God even though his eternal power and divine nature have been clearly revealed (Rom. 1: 18-23).
2. The Arminian view effectively makes the individual’s free action rather than God’s sovereign choice to be decisive for salvation. However, contrary to the Arminians, it is not the individual’s subjective faith that is the source of blessing. Paul’s focus in this verse is not the subjective faith of the individual, but the divine origin of salvation. Election is grounded objectively “in Christ” rather than in the subjective faith of the individual (Eph. 1:4). S.M. Baugh notes that, “Throughout Eph. 1:3–14, Paul emphasizes God’s initiative in redeeming his people from transgressions (v. 7) and that this is only accomplished in union with Christ, i.e., “in him.” The mediation of Christ is essential for any benefit from God and was planned by him (vv. 5, 9, 11) “before the foundation of the world” (v. 4b).”/3/
God’s election is not based on foreseen faith or good works of man. Christ is the source and executor of salvation who provides the objective ground of salvation. Christ is the One through whom the purpose of God’s election will be achieved. What the elect experience in the present was already contemplated in God’s pre-temporal decision to gather a people to enjoy the blessings of salvation in Christ. Charles Hodge elaborates,
It was in Christ as their head and representative they were chosen to holiness and eternal life, and therefore in virtue of what he was to do in their behalf. There is a federal [covenant] union with Christ which is antecedent to all actual union, and is the source of it. God gave a people to his Son in the covenant of redemption…Their voluntary union with Christ by faith, is not the ground of their federal union, but, on the contrary, their federal union is the ground of their voluntary union. It is, therefore, in Christ, i.e. as united to him in the covenant of redemption, that the people of God are elected to eternal life and to all the blessings therewith connected. /4/
Sixth, election is neither arbitrary nor unjust. It is utterly consistent with both the holiness and love of God. God would have been perfectly just in passing over some individuals (these sinners get what they deserve) and perfectly merciful in electing some to salvation (these sinners receive the blessing they do not deserve). We dare not demand justice from God. Justice will only sentence all of us sinners to hell! Sadly, the tragedy is that recalcitrant sinners will reject God’s grace to bitter end. John Milton aptly captured the persistence of unrepentance when he wrote that for Satan it would be “Better to reign in Hell, than to serve in Heaven.” In the same spirit, recalcitrant sinners will have no desire for the blessings of God’s salvation even when they face divine judgment and languish in hell.
Our natural fallen selves experience difficulties in accepting God’s unconditional election. We would jealously guard our autonomous or libertarian freedom rather than submit to the sovereign God in whom “we live and move and have our being” and works all things “according to the good pleasure of his will.” (Acts 17:28; Eph. 1:6). “We wish to be at our own disposal. We wish “to belong to ourselves,” and we resent belonging, especially belonging absolutely, to anybody else, even if that anybody else be God…We will not be controlled. Or rather, to speak more accurately, we will not admit that we are controlled.” /5/ In contrast the heavenly throng displays gratitude towards God’s unconditional and unmerited grace when they extol Christ, “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!…To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!” (Rev. 5: 12, 13).
Seventh, the culmination of election is the glory of God (Eph. 1:6, c.f. verses 12, 14). God is not obliged to save anyone. The real problem is not why God had not chosen some, but why he chose any. That God freely chose some even though this leads to the sacrificial death of Christ highlights the absolutely gracious character of salvation and demonstrates the glory of divine grace (Eph. 1:6). Charles Hodge exclaims, “The design of redemption, therefore, is to exhibit the grace of God in such a conspicuous manner as to fill all hearts with wonder and all lips with praise.” /6/
A.H. Strong concurs,
Election deals, not simply with creatures, but with sinful, guilty, and condemned creatures. That any should be saved, is matter of pure grace, and those who are not included in this purpose of salvation suffer only the due reward of their deeds. There is, therefore, no injustice in God’s election. We may better praise God that he saves any, than charge him with injustice because he saves so few… It represents God, not as arbitrary, but as exercising the free choice of a wise and sovereign will, in ways and for reasons which are inscrutable to us. To deny the possibility of such a choice is to deny God’s personality. To deny that God has reasons for his choice is to deny his wisdom. The doctrine of election finds these reasons, not in men, but in God. /7/
Right theology leads to doxology. Paul’s profound discussion on predestination and election in Romans 9-11 ends in spontaneous praise to the glory of God’s wisdom. “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! “For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?” “Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid?” For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen” (Rom. 11:33-36).
God’s actions are necessarily sovereign, holy and wise. As Jonathan Edwards exults,
There is no other Divine sovereignty but this; and this is properly absolute sovereignty: no other is desirable; nor would any other be honourable or happy and, indeed, there is no other conceivable or possible: It is the glory and greatness of the Divine Sovereign, that God’s will is determined by his own infinite, all-sufficient wisdom in every thing; and in nothing at all is either directed by any inferior wisdom, or by no wisdom; whereby it would become senseless arbitrariness, determining and acting without reason, design, or end. /8/
Joel Beeke offers a comprehensive statement which neatly ties up the various strands of the doctrine of election. Election is “that aspect of God’s eternal decree of all things in which he sovereignly and lovingly selects, according to the incomprehensible counsel of his will alone and nothing good foreseen in us, those whom he will effectually call, justify, sanctify, and glorify by union with Jesus Christ, for the Father entered into an eternal covenant with Christ that he should be the Mediator of grace applied by the Spirit through God’s appointed means, to the praise of God’s glory alone.” /9/
Finally, only God knows exactly who is among the elect, but we may confidently say that the elect will include anyone who receives Christ and who subsequently grows in holiness. Meanwhile, we shall proclaim the gospel boldly, being assured that all whom God has elected in Christ before the foundation of the world will surely come to Jesus.
/1/ Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Eerdmans reprint 1938 ed.), p. 114.
/2/ Sam Storms, Chosen for Life: The Case for Divine Election (Crossway, 2007), p. 110.
/3/ S.M. Baugh, Ephesians: Evangelical Exegetical Commentary (Lexham Press, 2015), p. 80. Harold Hoehner in his massive commentary on Ephesians concludes that “the local sense, the believer incorporated in Christ [an objective relationship], gives the best sense in this context…the believer is “in Christ.” The believer, who is united with Christ who is in heaven, partakes of the spiritual benefits from the heavenlies.” Harold Hoehner, Ephesians: An Exegetical Commentary (Baker, 2002), p. 172.
/4/ Charles Hodge, A commentary on the Epistle to the Ephesians (Banner of Truth, 1856, reprint 2003), p.9. p. 30.
/5/ B.B. Warfield, “Some Thoughts on Predestination,” in Selected Shorter Writings vol.1 (Pres. & Reformed, 1976), p. 103.
/6/ Hodge, Ephesians, p. 15.
/7/ A.H. Strong, Systematic theology (Pickering & Inglis reprint 1907 ed.), pp. 785, 787.
/8/ Jonathan Edwards, Freedom of the Will ed. Paul Ramsey (Yale Uni. Press, 1957), Part4.sect7, p. 380.
/9/ Joel R. Beeke and Paul M. Smalley, Reformed Systematic Theology Vol. 1 (Crossway, 2019).
This article was originally published here and was published with permission of the author.
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Ng Kam Weng is the research director of the Kairos Research Centre in Petaling Jaya, Malaysia and writes the blogs Krisis & Praxis and Religious Liberty Watch. Weng is also affiliated with the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity. Previously, he had been a fellow at the Oxford Centre for Mission Studies and a member of the Center for Theological Inquiry at Princeton University. From 1989 to 1992 he taught at the Malaysia Bible Seminary Graduate School. He has a Ph.D. from Cambridge University.
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